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Olympic symbols

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) uses icons, flags, and symbols to elevate the Olympic Games. These symbols include those commonly used during Olympic competition—such as the flame, fanfare and theme—as well as those used throughout the years, such as the Olympic flag.

The Olympic flag was created in 1913 under the guidance of Baron de Coubertin of France. It was first hoisted in Alexandria, Egypt, at the 1914 Pan-Egyptian Games.[1] The five rings on the flag represent the inhabited continents of the world (the Americas were considered as one continent and Europe was treated as distinct from Asia). It was made to contain the colours (blue, black, red, yellow, and green) which are common to almost all flags around the world.[2]

Motto and creed[edit]

The motto on a 1948 Summer Olympics medal

The original Olympic motto is the hendiatris Citius, Altius, Fortius which is Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger".[3] The motto was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin upon the creation of the International Olympic Committee. Coubertin borrowed it from his friend Henri Didon, a Dominican priest who was an athletics enthusiast.[4] Coubertin said that "these three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible".[4] The motto was introduced in 1924 at the Olympic Games in Paris.[5] Coubertin's Olympic ideals are expressed in the Olympic creed:

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."[6]

Coubertin got this text from a sermon by the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, Ethelbert Talbot, during the 1908 London Games.[7]

In 2021, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), approved the addition of the word "together", after an en dash, to the motto; it now reads "Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter," Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together" (or, in French, "Plus vite, Plus haut, Plus fort – Ensemble").[8][9] According to some Italian Latinists, such as professor Mario De Nonno and professor Giorgio Piras, the concept of acting together is not properly conveyed by 'communis' nor 'communiter,' and De Nonno suggests an adverb such as 'Una' meaning 'as one'.[10][11]


The five-ringed symbol of the Olympic Games
The first five-ringed symbol of the Olympic Games used between 1913 and 1986
The second five-ringed symbol of the Olympic Games used between 1986 and 2010

There are five interlocking rings, coloured blue, yellow, black, green, and red on a white field. These together are known as the "Olympic rings." The symbol was originally created in 1913 by Coubertin.[12] He appears to have intended the rings to represent the five inhabited continents: Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.[13] According to Coubertin, the colours of the rings, along with the white background, represented the colours of every competing country's flag at the time. Upon its initial introduction, Coubertin stated the following in the August 1913 edition of Olympique:[14]

... 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 tricolour flags of France, United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Hungary, and the yellow and red of Spain are included, as are the innovative flags of Brazil and Australia, and those of ancient Japan and modern China. This, truly, is an international emblem.

USFSA logo

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.[15]

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.[16]

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, the site of the famous oracle, where the Pythian Games were also held. For this reason, he ordered the 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[17] that the Olympic rings design came from ancient Greece. This has become known as "Carl Diem's Stone."[18] 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.[19] 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. The 1949–50 edition of the IOC's "Green Booklet" stated that each colour corresponded to a particular continent: "blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia, and red for America".[20] This assertion was reversed in 1951 because there was no evidence that Coubertin had intended it: "at the very most he might perhaps have admitted it afterwards".[21] Nevertheless, the pre-2014 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.[22]

An Olympic Rings emoji was added to WhatsApp on 24 July 2016 in version 2.16.7, it was later removed on 15 August 2016 in version 2.16.9.[23] It consisted of five U+25EF LARGE CIRCLE characters joined with U+200D ZERO WIDTH JOINERs, forming a joined character sequence. It is assumed that this was part of a temporary agreement with the International Olympic Committee.[24] On Android, WhatsApp's emoji keyboard included the symbol at the end of the sports section. However, on iOS, WhatsApp doesn't have an emoji keyboard so users had to copy and paste the emoji sequence.[24]

Different types of flags [edit]

The International Olympic Committee
The Olympic rings
UseSport Small vexillological symbol or pictogram in black and white showing the different uses of the flag Small vexillological symbol or pictogram in black and white showing the different uses of the flag
Adopted14 August 1920
DesignFive interlaced rings of equal dimensions (the Olympic rings), used alone, in one or in five different colours. When used in its five-colour version, these colours shall be, from left to right, blue, yellow, black, green, and red. The rings are interlaced from left to right; the blue, black, and red rings are situated at the top, the yellow and green rings at the bottom in accordance with the following graphic reproduction.
Designed byPierre de Coubertin
The Olympic flag flying in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, as the province was the host of 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver

Pierre de Coubertin created the Olympic flag in 1913.

The emblem selected to illustrate and represent the 1914 World Congress which was to place the final seal on the restoration of the Olympics began to appear on various preliminary documents: five rings linked at regular intervals, their various colors – blue, yellow, black, green and red – standing out against the white of the paper. These five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism, ready to accept its fruitful rivalries. In addition, the six colours 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 tricolor flags of France, United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Hungary, and the yellow and red of Spain are included, as are the innovative flags of Brazil and Australia, and those of ancient Japan and modern China. This, truly, is an international emblem. It was made to be turned into a flag, and the look of the flag would be perfect. It is a light, appealing flag, a delight to see fluttering in the wind. Its meaning is largely symbolic. Its success is assured, to the point that after the Congress it can continue to be raised on solemn Olympic occasions.

— Pierre de Coubertin (1913)[25]

Specific flags used[edit]

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 or Oslo Ceremony,[26] 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 special flags should not be confused with the larger Olympic flags manufactured specifically for each games, which are flown over the stadium during all the duration of the Games and then retired. Because there is no specific flag for this purpose, the flags flown over the stadiums generally have subtle differences, including minor colour variations, and, more noticeably, the presence (or lack) of white outlines around each ring.[citation needed]

Antwerp flag[edit]

During the Opening Ceremony of the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, the Olympic flag with the five rings signifying the universality of the Olympic Games was raised for the first time at an Olympic Games.[27] At the end of the Games, the flag could not be found and a new Olympic flag had to be made for the handover ceremony to the officials of 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".[28] It was passed on to the next organizing city of the Summer 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.[29] The original Antwerp Flag has been on display at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, with a plaque thanking him for donating it.[30] The flag returned to Antwerp in 2004 and since 2013, the year that Antwerp bore the title of European Sports Capital,[31] could the flag be admired in the entrance hall of Antwerp's city hall. In 2017, however, the flag was stored in the collection of the MAS due to the renovation of the town hall.

While the flag is recognized by the IOC, critics and historians note that the returned flag is not the one that was used in the 1920 opening ceremony, as the original flag was much larger than the one returned by Prieste.[13]

Oslo flag[edit]

The Oslo flag was presented to the IOC by the mayor of Oslo, Norway, during the 1952 Winter Olympics. Between 1952 and 2014, the flag was passed to the next organizing city for the Winter Olympics, with its last appearance in Sochi in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Currently, the actual Oslo flag is kept preserved in a special box, and in its last appearances (Torino 2006 to Sochi 2014), replicas had been used instead.[32]

Seoul flag[edit]

Flag of South Korea alongside an Olympic Flag in Olympic Park, Seoul

As a successor to the Antwerp Flag,[33] the Seoul flag was presented to the IOC at the 1988 Summer Olympics by the city of Seoul, South Korea, and was passed on to the next organizing cities of the Summer Olympics[34] between 1988 and 2012. Its last appearance was in London in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Rio de Janeiro flag[edit]

As a successor to the Seoul Flag,[35] 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 been passed to the next organizing city of the Summer Olympics.[36]

Pyeongchang flag[edit]

As a successor to the Oslo Flag,[37] the Pyeongchang flag was presented to the IOC at the 2018 Winter Olympics by the city of Pyeongchang, South Korea, and has since then been passed to the next organizing city of the Winter Olympics.[36]

Singapore flag[edit]

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.[38][39] During the closing ceremony on 26 August 2010, Singapore officials presented it to the next organizing committee, Nanjing 2014.[40]

Innsbruck flag[edit]

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[edit]

The Olympic flame at Athens 2004 during the Opening Ceremony.

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[edit]

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. However, while the creators of the Winter Games medals have complete freedom to choose their designs, this does not apply to the Summer Games medals; the obverse side of the medals have an image of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, holding a palm in her left hand and a winner's crown in her right, and the Colosseum in Rome in the background. The original design, created by Giuseppe Cassioli, was used from the 1928 Summer Olympics to the 2000 Summer Olympics. For each Summer Olympics afterward, the reverse side, as well as the labels for each Olympiad, were changed to reflect scenic images or locations from the host city.

The design of the medals underwent a drastic change for the 2004 Summer Olympics, when Cassioli's design was replaced by a more modern design connected to Greece. The obverse side was changed to make more explicit references to the Greek goddess and traditions. In this design, the goddess Niké flies into the grounds of the Panathenaic Stadium, symbolizing the renewal of the Games. The new design was created by Greek jewelry designer Elena Votsi.[41]

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 location 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:

The composer of the 1952 Olympic Fanfare, Aarre Merikanto, at Helsinki Olympic Stadium during the games.

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),[47] is an olive branch, originally of wild olive-tree, intertwined to form a circle or a horse-shoe, introduced by Heracles.[48] 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.[49] 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."[50]

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[edit]

The Olympic Salute sculpted by Gra Rueb, sculpted for the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.

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.[citation needed] The greeting is visible on the official posters of the games at Paris 1924[51] and Berlin 1936.[52]

The Olympic salute has fallen out of use since World War II because of its resemblance to the Nazi salute.[53] It was used by the French team in the opening ceremony of the 1948 Winter Olympics.[54]


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[edit]

The Olympic movement is very protective of its symbols, and 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[where?], 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; Wizards of the Coast, publisher at the time of the IOC's complaint of the card game Legend of the Five Rings; and Philippine sporting good chain Olympic Village.[55]

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.[56] 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.

The IOC maintains exclusive ownership and control of the use of Olympic Symbols through an international treaty and the IOC's demand for the enactment of laws in hosting locations to grant special trade mark protection to Olympic Symbols. In 1981, the Nairobi Treaty, a treaty administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization, was signed by fifty-two states.[57] All fifty-two signatories to the Nairobi Treaty became obligated under the treaty to protect Olympic Symbols against use for commercial purposes without authorization of the IOC. Under the Nairobi Treaty, if the IOC authorizes use of an Olympic Symbol in a country that is a party to the treaty, then that country's National Olympic Committee is entitled to a portion of any revenue generated from the IOC's authorization of use. The Nairobi Treaty provides for a framework of international intellectual property protection of the licensure of all Olympic Symbols.[58][59]

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.[60][61]

Bob Barney co-authored the book Selling the Five Rings (2002), with Stephen Wenn and Scott Martyn, which discussed the history of corporate sponsorships and television rights for the Olympic Games.[62][63] Barney argued that the Olympic torch had been commercialized since its inception in 1936, and that sponsors of the torch relay benefit from brand awareness; whereas the medal podium ceremonies which began in 1932, had not become commercialized since no advertising is allowed inside Olympic venues.[64]

See also[edit]


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