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Olympic symbols
Olympic symbols

TheOlympic symbolsare icons, flags, and symbols used by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to elevate the Olympic Games. Some—such as the flame, fanfare, and theme—are more commonly used during Olympic competition, but others, such as the flags, can be seen throughout the years. The Olympic flag was created under the guidance of Baron de Coubertin in 1913 and was released in 1914. It was first hoisted in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium at the 1920 Summer Olympics in the main stadium. The five rings represent the five continents of the world.


The Olympic motto is the hendiatris Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger".[1] It was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin upon the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894. Coubertin borrowed it from his friend Henri Didon, a Dominican priest who was an athletics enthusiast.[2] Coubertin said "These three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible."[2] The motto was introduced in 1924 at the Olympic Games in Paris.[3] A more informal but well-known motto, also introduced by Coubertin, is "The most important thing is not to win but to take part!" Coubertin got this motto from a sermon by the Bishop of Pennsylvania during the 1908 London Games.[4]


The rings are five interlocking rings, coloured blue, yellow, black, green, and red on a white field, known as the "Olympic rings". The symbol was originally designed in 1913 by de Coubertin.[5] He appears to have intended the rings to represent the five continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Australia.[6] According to Coubertin, the colours of the rings together with the white of the background included the colours composing every competing nation's flag at the time. Upon its initial introduction, Coubertin stated the following in the August 1913 edition of Olympique:[7]

In his article published in the Olympic Revue the official magazine of the International Olympic Committee in November 1992, the American historian Robert Barney explains that the idea of the interlaced rings came to Pierre de Coubertin when he was in charge of the USFSA, an association founded by the union of two French sports associations and until 1925, responsible for representing the International Olympic Committee in France: The emblem of the union was two interlaced rings (like the vesica piscis typical interlaced marriage rings) and originally the idea of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung: for him, the ring symbolized continuity and the human being.[8]

The 1914 Congress was suspended due to the outbreak of World War I, but the symbol and flag were later adopted. They officially debuted at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.[9]

The symbol's popularity and widespread use began during the lead-up to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Carl Diem, president of the Organizing Committee of the 1936 Summer Olympics, wanted to hold a torchbearers' ceremony in the stadium at Delphi, site of the famous oracle, where the Pythian Games were also held. For this reason he ordered construction of a milestone with the Olympic rings carved in the sides, and that a torchbearer should carry the flame along with an escort of three others from there to Berlin. The ceremony was celebrated but the stone was never removed. Later, two American authors, Lynn and Gray Poole, when visiting Delphi in the late 1950s, saw the stone and reported in their History of the Ancient Games[10] that the Olympic rings design came from ancient Greece. This has become known as "Carl Diem's Stone".[11] This created a myth that the symbol had an ancient Greek origin.

The current view of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is that the symbol "reinforces the idea" that the Olympic Movement is international and welcomes all countries of the world to join.[12] As can be read in the Olympic Charter, the Olympic symbol represents the union of the "five continents" of the world and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games. However, no continent is represented by any specific ring. Nevertheless, the former logo of the Association of National Olympic Committees placed the logo of each of its five continental associations inside the ring of the corresponding colour. This logo was changed in 2018.

Different types of flags

The Olympic flag was created by Pierre de Coubertin in 1913.

There are specific Olympic flags that are displayed by cities that will be hosting the next Olympic games. During each Olympic closing ceremony in what is traditionally known as the Antwerp Ceremony,[14] the flag is passed from the mayor of one host city to the next host, where it will then be taken to the new host and displayed at city hall. These flags should not be confused with the larger Olympic flags designed and created specifically for each games, which are flown over the host stadium and then retired. Because there is no specific flag for this purpose, the flags flown over the stadiums generally have subtle differences, including minor color variations, and, more noticeably, the presence (or lack) of white outlines around each ring.

The first Olympic flag was presented to the Jr National Olympics at the 1920 Summer Olympics by the city of Antwerp, Belgium. At the end of the Games, the flag could not be found and a new Olympic flag had to be made for the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Despite it being a replacement, the IOC officially still calls this the "Antwerp Flag" instead of the "Paris Flag".[15] It was passed on to the next organizing city of the Summer Olympics or Winter Olympics until the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, when a separate Olympic flag was created to be used only at the Winter Olympics (see below). The 1924 flag then continued to be used at the Summer Olympics until the Games of Seoul 1988 when it was retired.

In 1997, at a banquet hosted by the US Olympic Committee, a reporter was interviewing Hal Haig Prieste who had won a bronze medal in platform diving as a member of the 1920 US Olympic team. The reporter mentioned that the IOC had not been able to find out what had happened to the original Olympic flag. "I can help you with that," Prieste said, "It's in my suitcase." At the end of the Antwerp Olympics, spurred on by teammate Duke Kahanamoku, he climbed a flagpole and stole the Olympic flag. For 77 years the flag was stored away in the bottom of his suitcase. The flag was returned to the IOC by Prieste, by then 103 years old, in a special ceremony held at the 2000 Games in Sydney.[16] The original Antwerp Flag is now on display at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, with a plaque thanking him for donating it.[17]

The Oslo flag was presented to the IOC by the mayor of Oslo, Norway, during the 1952 Winter Olympics. Since then, it has been passed to the next organizing city for the Winter Olympics. Currently, the actual Oslo flag is kept preserved in a special box, and a replica has been used during recent closing ceremonies instead.[18]

As a successor to the Antwerp Flag,[19] the Seoul flag was presented to the IOC at the 1988 Summer Olympics by the city of Seoul, South Korea, and has since then been passed on to the next organizing city of the Summer Olympics. The Seoul flag is currently on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

As a successor to the Seoul Flag,[20] the Rio de Janeiro flag was presented to the IOC at the 2016 Summer Olympics by the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and has since then been passed on to the next organizing city of the Summer Olympics, Tokyo.

For the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, an Olympic flag was created for the junior version of the Games. The flag is similar to the Olympic flag, but has the host city and year on it and was first presented to Singapore by IOC President Jacques Rogge.[21][22] During the closing ceremony on 26 August 2010, Singapore officials presented it to the next organizing committee, Nanjing 2014.[23]

For the inaugural winter Youth Olympic Games, an Olympic flag was presented to the IOC at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympics by the city of Innsbruck, Austria, and has since then been passed on to the next organizing city of the Winter Youth Olympics.

Flame and torch relay

The modern tradition of moving the Olympic flame via a relay system from Greece to the Olympic venue began with the Berlin Games in 1936. Months before the Games are held, the Olympic flame is lit on a torch, with the rays of the Sun concentrated by a parabolic reflector, at the site of the Ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. The torch is then taken out of Greece, most often to be taken around the country or continent where the Games are held. The Olympic torch is carried by athletes, leaders, celebrities, and ordinary people alike, and at times in unusual conditions, such as being electronically transmitted via satellite for Montreal 1976, submerged underwater without being extinguished for Sydney 2000, or in space and at the North Pole for Sochi 2014. On the final day of the torch relay, the day of the Opening Ceremony, the Flame reaches the main stadium and is used to light a cauldron situated in a prominent part of the venue to signify the beginning of the Games.

Medals and diplomas

The Olympic medals awarded to winners are another symbol associated with the Olympic games. The medals are made of gold-plated silver – for the gold medals – silver, or bronze, and are awarded to the top three finishers in a particular event. Each medal for an Olympiad has a common design, decided upon by the organizers for the particular games. From 1928 until 2000, the obverse side of the medals contained an image of Nike, the traditional goddess of victory, holding a palm in her left hand and a winner's crown in her right. This design was created by Giuseppe Cassioli. For each Olympic games, the reverse side as well as the labels for each Olympiad changed, reflecting the host of the games.

In 2004, the obverse side of the medals changed to make more explicit reference to the Greek character of the games. In this design, the goddess Nike flies into the Panathenic stadium, reflecting the renewal of the games. The design was by Greek jewelry designer Elena Votsi.[24]

Olympic diplomas are given to competitors placing fourth, fifth, and sixth since 1949, and to competitors placing seventh and eighth since 1981.


The "Olympic Hymn", officially known as the "Olympic Anthem", is played when the Olympic flag is raised. It was composed by Spyridon Samaras with words from a poem of the Greek poet and writer Kostis Palamas. Both the poet and the composer were the choice of Demetrius Vikelas, a Greek Pro-European and the first President of the IOC. The anthem was performed for the first time for the ceremony of opening of the 1896 Athens Olympic Games but wasn't declared the official hymn by the IOC until 1958. In the following years, every hosting nation commissioned the composition of a specific Olympic hymn for their own edition of the Games until the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.

Other notable Olympic anthems and fanfares include:

Several other composers have contributed Olympic music, including Henry Mancini, Francis Lai, Marvin Hamlisch, Philip Glass, David Foster, Mikis Theodorakis, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vangelis, Basil Poledouris, Michael Kamen, and Mark Watters.


The kotinos (Greek: κότινος),[30] is an olive branch, originally of wild olive-tree, intertwined to form a circle or a horse-shoe, introduced by Heracles.[31] In the ancient Olympic Games there were no gold, silver, or bronze medals. There was only one winner per event, crowned with an olive wreath made of wild olive leaves from a sacred tree near the temple of Zeus at Olympia. Aristophanes in Plutus makes a sensible remark as to why victorious athletes are crowned with a wreath made of wild olive instead of gold.[32] The victorious athletes were honored, feted, and praised. Their deeds were heralded and chronicled so that future generations could appreciate their accomplishments.

Herodotus describes the following story which is relevant to the olive wreath. Xerxes was interrogating some Arcadians after the Battle of Thermopylae. He inquired why there were so few Greek men defending Thermopylae. The answer was "All other men are participating in the Olympic Games". And when asked "What is the prize for the winner?", "An olive-wreath" came the answer. Then Tigranes, one of his generals uttered a most noble saying: "Good heavens! Mardonius, what kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight? Men who do not compete for possessions, but for honour."[33]

However, in later times, this was not their only reward; the athlete was rewarded with a generous sum of money by his country. The kotinos tradition was renewed specifically for the Athens 2004 Games, although in this case it was bestowed together with the gold medal. Apart from its use in the awards ceremonies, the kotinos was chosen as the 2004 Summer Olympics emblem.

Olympic salute

The Olympic salute is a variant of the Roman salute, with the right arm and hand stretched and pointing upward, the palm outward and downward, with the fingers touching. However, unlike the Roman Salute, the arm is raised higher and at an angle to the right from the shoulder.[34][35] The greeting is visible on the official posters of the games at Paris 1924[34] and Berlin 1936.[36]

The Olympic salute has fallen out of use since World War II because of its resemblance to the Nazi salute.[37] It was used for the last time by the French team in the opening ceremony of the 1948 Winter Olympics.[38]


Since the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, the Olympic Games have had a mascot, usually an animal native to the area or occasionally human figures representing the cultural heritage. The first major mascot in the Olympic Games was Misha in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Misha was used extensively during the opening and closing ceremonies, had a TV animated cartoon and appeared on several merchandise products. Nowadays, most of the merchandise aimed at young people focuses on the mascots, rather than the Olympic flag or organization logos.

Intellectual property

The Olympic movement is very protective of its symbols; as many jurisdictions have given the movement exclusive trademark rights to any interlocking arrangement of five rings, and usage of the word "Olympic". The rings are not eligible for copyright protection, both because of their date of creation and because five circles arranged in a pattern do not reach the threshold of originality required to be copyrighted.

The movement has taken action against numerous groups alleged to have violated their trademarks, including the Gay Games; the Minneapolis-based band The Hopefuls, formerly The Olympic Hopefuls; the Redneck Olympics or Redneck Games; Awana Clubs International, a Christian youth ministry who used the term for its competitive games; and Wizards of the Coast, publisher at the time of the IOC's complaint of the card game Legend of the Five Rings.

In 1938, the Norwegian brewery Frydenlund patented a label for its root beer which featured the five Olympic rings. In 1952, when Norway was to host the Winter Olympics, the Olympic Committee was notified by Norway's Patent Office that it was Frydenlund who owned the rights to the rings in that country. Today, the successor company Ringnes AS owns the rights to use the patented five rings on its root beer.[39] In addition, a few other companies have been successful in using the Olympic name, such as Olympic Paint, which has a paintbrush in the form of a torch as its logo, and the former Greek passenger carrier Olympic Airlines.

Certain other sporting organizations and events have been granted permission by the IOC to use the word "Olympics" in their name, such as the Special Olympics, an international sporting event held every four years for people with intellectual disabilities.

In recent years, organizing committees have also demanded the passing of laws to combat ambush marketing by non-official sponsors during the Games – such as the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 – putting heavy restrictions on using any term or imagery that could constitute an unauthorized association with the games, including mere mentioning of the host city, the year, and others.[40][41]

See also

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