Whether rendered on the outfits of the competing athletes, the flags held aloft in the stadium or in face paint on a child near you, we’re all about to see a lot more of the famous Olympic rings for the next few weeks. It’s an instantly recognisable symbol all around the world, but where did it come from, and what do the colours of the rings themselves mean? We take a trawl back through over 100 years of Olympic art to look at their meaning, significance… and the ways in which designers have put them to use celebrating sport in all its forms.
Although the International Olympic Committee was created in 1894 the event itself had no official lasting symbol until 1912. Co-founder of the modern Games Baron Pierre de Coubertin came up with the design of five interlinked rings with the colours – blue, yellow, black, green and red – carefully selected to encompass all of the countries competing at that time. Coubertin said in the 1912 edition of Olympique, “… the six colours [including the flag’s white background] combined in this way reproduce the colours of every country without exception. The blue and yellow of Sweden, the blue and white of Greece, the tri-colours of France, England, America, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Hungary, and the yellow and red of Spain, are placed together with the innovations of Brazil or Australia, with old Japan, and with new China. Here is truly an international symbol.”
Coubertin was something of a cultural magpie. It was he who introduced the Olympic motto, “The most important thing is not to win but to take part.” A sentiment in fact first put into these words in a sermon by the Bishop of Pennsylvania during the 1908 London Games. The rings also have an antecedent in the logo of the USFSA, a French sports governing body during the 1900s which Coubertin was in charge of at the time. Their symbol of two interlaced rings originated from the seemingly unusual source of the psychiatrist Carl Jung, and the symbolism of unity and continuity in the human was then tweaked to evoke an the international unity that is so central to the modern Olympic ethos.
Although it is often stated that the five rings represent the five continents by colour, the current International Olympic Committee stresses that no one colour specifically represents any one continent, only that the interlinked rings emphasise the Olympics as an international and global movement. Although the rings themselves are strictly policed by the IOC, with strict guidelines about how they may be reproduced, the poster artwork for each games is an opportunity for designers and artists to play with symbol and reflect something of the host nation, as this small selection shows.
You can view posters from every previous Olympic Games, as well as finding out much, much more about the event’s history and current activities at the IOC’s official Olympic website.