There will be a lot to miss about the Olympics this summer, with the postponement of the games, originally slated to begin in July in Toyko, to 2021. The pomp and pageantry; the nobler expressions of human endeavour and achievement, on field and water; the pride in being part of something that transcends conflict, race and religion. And—damn it—the national anthems. Strident, alarming, whimsical, hilarious, sometimes mildly disturbing—but invariably entertaining. First incorporated into medal ceremonies in 1924, they have an illustrious history with the games (despite Prince George William of Hanover, a loopy cousin of HM Queen Elizabeth, attempting to abolish them, along with every other symbol of nationalism, during his tenure as chairman of the International Olympic Committee in the late 60’s). Some poor soul will probably have already begin assembling recordings of the anthems of the more than 200 participating countries. Now they’ve got another year to complete the task; in the meantime, we’ve got a crib sheet to tide you over.
Who says they’re the most laid-back people in Europe? Having essentially ceded two wars to Austria (or three, depending on how you’re tabulating) in the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s probably not so surprising that Il Canto degli Italiani is basically one long (if admittedly pretty upbeat) axe-grind, with Italy’s not-so-gemutlich former oppressor as the primary target. That’s what you get for enlisting a hotblooded 20-year-old to write it (the Genoese Goffredo Mameli, who penned the lyrics in 1847 to accompany music by Michele Novaro).
Points for: surprising—and surprisingly creative—bellicosity.
Ace lyric sampling: “Already the eagle of Austria has lost its feathers/ the blood of Italy and the Polish blood drank with Cossacks/But its heart was burnt.” Whoa, whoa—con calma, eh?
Actual national anthem: Bella Ciao, the partisan resistance classic that has taken on new meaning sung from countless windows throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s God Save The Queen—for now. At 94, Elizabeth Regina has reigned for so long that most of the world, let alone the Commonwealth, has forgotten that, eventually, there’s going to be a lyrical switch-up here. Glorious and victorious will still feature of course—just with a different Windsor, and set of chromosomes, in the picture. We are most pleased.
Points for: wit, pithiness, gender fluidity.
Ace lyric sampling: “Confound their politics/frustrate their knavish tricks/on Thee our hopes we fix/God save us all”. Any country that works the word ‘knave’ into its national anthem has our vote. So to speak.
Actual national anthem: God Save The Queen—Sex Pistols version.
The joke goes that very few, even in Canada, actually know all the words. But while it hasn’t scored exceptionally high for sing-along-ability, the Great White North’s anthem seems familiar to people the world over. Or rather, its indelible opening salvo is familiar: three notes, two words—and one of them is “Canada”. So actually, not that hard to not remember. And, if we are honest, a bit….meh. But in a bilingual country, it’s probably smart to keep it simple.
Points for: political correctness. In 2018 the lyrics were officially altered to be gender inclusive (with the line “in all thy sons” changed to “in all of us”), which feels so totally Canadian.
Ace lyric sampling: “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.” Repeated three times in a single verse. Just so everyone’s clear on their remit.
Actual national anthem: Anything by Bryan Adams…or Celine Dion.
March of the Volunteers is its official title, and it’s probably the only national anthem in the world that was adopted from a movie (originally written in 1935 as part of a propaganda play, then film, about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, in 1949 the ditty was chosen out of all what were said to be thousands of submissions and contenders by the Communist Party). It was banned for several years in the mid-20th century, then revived in the 70’s with new lyrics heaping praise on Mao Zedong. After his passing, the original was reinstated.
Points for: Inclusivity—the lyrics were written in vernacular, rather than Classical Chinese, allowing those who could neither read nor write to understand.
Ace lyric sampling: “With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall!” Great visual; too bad Hong Kong’s about to go the other side of it.
Actual national anthem: We’re not sure China needs one; a movie song that gets the patriot juices flowing works for us (and for China, clearly).
A complicated anthem for a complicated country. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, as it is colloquially known, was introduced in 1997. It rather remarkably works in a full five languages—Xhosa (the first two lines, including that informal title), Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. It also pulls off a merger as nearly as complicated as creating post-apartheid South Africa itself was, combining what had effectively been two discrete anthems: a late-19th century, Xhosa-language hymn which by the 80’s had become a byword for resistance, and Die Stem van Suid Afrika (‘The Call of South Africa’), the country’s original anthem, celebrating the Afrikaaners’ Great Trek to escape English-colonial dominion.
Points for: Sheer power (the opening line gives us the good shivers every time) and, between all the Xhosa and Dutch-inflected Afrikaans, sheer un-pronounce-ability.
Ace lyric sampling: “Let us live and strive for freedom/In South Africa, our land.” Emphasis on the our.
Actual national anthem: Not Shakira’s Waka Waka (This Time for Africa). Anything but that.
Like a good show pitch, it starts with a seriously punchy name—The Star Spangled Banner (compare that to Russia’s slightly less soul-stirring State Anthem of the Russian Federation)—and goes from there. Francis Scott Key didn’t skimp on the bombast, the drama or the color. The glory; the heav’n rescued land; the bombs bursting in air. It has violence, exceptionalism, some self-aggrandizing embellishment and lots of mad good rhymes. Really, it could only be American.
Points for: loquaciousness. Four verses, eight lines each. (Just remember ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ and you’ll be fine.)
Ace lyric sampling: Too many to parse. But we’re partial to the twinkly-sounding “twilight’s last gleaming.”
Actual national anthem: There’s precious little that can unite Americans these days so let’s stick with this one—but agree that the definitive version is Whitney’s, forever.
Maria Shollenbarger is the longtime travel editor at the Financial Times’ How To Spend It magazine. She also writes for Travel + Leisure, The Australian’s WISH magazine, and the FTWeekend. She lives in London and Italy.