Olympic symbols

The Olympic symbols are the icons, flags and symbols used by the International Olympic Committee to promote the Olympic Games. Some — such as the flame, fanfare, and theme — are more common during Olympic competition, but others, such as the flag, can be seen throughout the year.


The Olympic motto is the hendiatris Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for "Swifter, Higher, Stronger". The motto was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin on the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894. De Coubertin borrowed it from his friend Henri Didon, a Dominican priest who, amongst other things, was an athletics enthusiast. The motto was introduced in 1924 at the Olympic Games in Paris.

The motto was also the name of an Olympic history journal from 1992 to 1997, when it was renamed the Journal of Olympic History.

A more informal but well known motto, also introduced by De Coubertin, is "The most important thing is not to win but to take part!" De Coubertin got this motto from a sermon by the Bishop of Pennsylvania during the 1908 London Games.

Olympic rings

The symbol of the Olympic Games is composed of five interlocking rings, coloured blue, yellow, black, green, and red on a white field. This was originally designed in 1912 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. These five rings stand for passion, faith, victory, work ethic, and sportsmanship. Upon its initial introduction, de Coubertin stated the following in the August, 1912 edition of Revue Olympique:

The emblem chosen to illustrate and represent the world Congress of 1914 ...: five intertwined rings in different colors - blue, yellow, black, green, red - are placed on the white field of the paper. These five rings represent the five parts of the world which now are won over to Olympism and willing to accept healthy competition.

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 because for him the ring meant continuity and the human being.

According to De Coubertin the ring colors stand for those colors that appeared on all the national flags of the world at that time.

The 1914 Congress had to be suspended due to the outbreak of World War I, but the symbol (and flag) were later adopted. They would first officially debut at the VIIth Olympiad in Antwerp, Belgium in 1920.

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 British authors Lynn and Gray Poole when visiting Delphi in the late 1950s saw the stone and reported in their "History of the Ancient Games" that the Olympic rings design came from ancient Greece. This has become known as "Carl Diem's Stone". This created a myth that the symbol had an ancient Greek origin. The rings would subsequently be featured prominently in Nazi images in 1936 as part of an effort to glorify the Third Reich.

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. As can be read in the Olympic Charter, the Olympic symbol represents the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games. However, no continent is represented by any specific ring. Though colorful explanations about the symbolism of the colored rings exist (for example, it is said that the five Olympic rings are blue, yellow, black, green, and red because at least one of these colors appears on every national flag), the only connection between the rings and the continents is that the number five refers to the number of continents. In this scheme, The Americas are viewed as a single continent, and Antarctica is omitted. The current 5 continents are Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania.

The black ring may be substituted by a white ring if the symbol is placed on a dark-colored background.

Olympic emblems

Each Olympic Games has its own Olympic emblem, which is a design integrating the Olympic rings with one or more distinctive elements. All emblems are the exclusive property of the IOC and cannot be used without its authorization.


Created by Pierre De Coubertin in 1914.
The Olympic flag [...] has a white background, with five interlaced rings in the centre: blue, yellow, black, green and red [...] This design is symbolic ; it represents the five inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colors are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time.|20|20|Pierre De Coubertin (1931)

Specific flags

There are specific Olympic flags that are displayed by cities that will be hosting the next Olympic games. Traditionally, the flag is passed from the mayor of one host city to the next host at the Closing Ceremony, where it will be taken to the new host and displayed at city hall.

Antwerp flag

The first Olympic flag was presented to the IOC 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 1977, at a banquet hosted by the US Olympic Committee, a reporter was interviewing Haig ("Harry", "Hal") 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 team-mate 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. The Antwerp Flag is now on display at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, with a plaque thanking him for donating it.

Paris Flag

A new Olympic flag was created for the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris and 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. The Paris flag continued to be used at the Summer Olympics until the Games of Seoul 1988 when it was retired.

Oslo Flag

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.

Seoul flag

The current Olympic flag was presented to the IOC at the 1988 Summer Olympics by the city of Seoul, South Korea, and is passed on to the next organizing city of the Summer Olympics.

Flame and torch relay

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, or submerged underwater without being extinguished for Sydney 2000. 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. Then it is left to burn throughout the Games till the Closing Ceremony, when it is extinguished to signify the end of the Games. Only twice has the Olympic Flame actually been carried over more than one continent, i.e. Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, the latter of which had actually involved all six inhabited continents.


The Olympic medals awarded to winners are another symbol associated with the Olympic games. The medals are made of gold-plated silver (commonly described as "gold medals"), silver, or bronze, and awarded to the top 3 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 winners 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 medals for the Winter Olympics do not have a common side as the design for both sides is decided by the host organizers.


The Olympic Hymn, also known informally as the Olympic Anthem, is played when the Olympic Flag raised. It is a musical piece composed by Spyridon Samaras with words written from a poem of the Greek poet and writer Kostis Palamas. Both the poet and the composer were the choice of Demetrius Vikelas, a great 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 1957. In the following years every hosting nation commissioned the composition of a specific Olympic hymn for their own edition of the Games. This happened up until the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

Leo Arnaud's "Bugler's Dream" is often considered the most famous Olympic theme. Written in 1958 for Arnaud's Charge Suite, it is this piece, more than any of the fanfares or Olympic themes, that Americans recognize as the Olympic theme, a connection which began when ABC used it in broadcasts for the 1968 Olympics, and continued by NBC. According to United States Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Moran, many athletes include this piece in the music they listen to while preparing for competition. Arnaud's piece is stately, beginning with a timpani cadence that is soon joined by a distinctive theme in brass.

John Williams composed the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" for the 1984 Olympic Games, which were held in Los Angeles. It was released in its entirety on the albums "The Official Music of the XXIIIrd Olympiad Los Angeles 1984" and "The Official Music of the 1984 Games," with the latter made available on CD. The premiere recording was performed by an orchestra composed of Los Angeles-area musicians under the baton of the composer. A slightly different arrangement of the piece was released on the Philips album "By Request: The Best of John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra."

In 1996, an alternate version of "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" was released on the album Summon the Heroes for the Atlanta Olympic Games. In this arrangement, the first part of the piece was replaced with Arnaud's "Bugler's Dream." Although perhaps not as familiar as Arnaud's theme, it is hardly unknown, since it also is still used in network coverage of the Olympics.

"Olympic Fanfare and Theme" (not including the familiar part by Arnaud) was awarded a Grammy in 1985.

Another piece by Williams, "The Olympic Spirit", was written for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the corresponding NBC broadcast. The piece utilizes the brass, wind, and percussion sections heavily.


The kotinos (Greek: κοτινος) is an olive branch intertwined to form a circle. To be crowned with this wreath was the award that the athletes of the ancient Olympic Games competed for. However, this was not their only reward; usually the athlete was rewarded with a generous sum of money by his hometown.

At Athens 2004 the kotinos tradition was renewed, 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: the right arm and hand are stretched and pointing upward, the palm is outward/downward. It looks like the Hitler salute, albeit with the arm aiming higher.

The greeting is visible on the official posters of the games at Paris 1924 and Berlin 1936. Also famous is the French and Canadian teams entering the Olympic stadium in Berlin, 1936 with their arms raised. In the Leni Riefenstahl film Olympia this scene was captured, and afterwards led to repeated misinterpretations suggesting that the French delegation was greeting Hitler.

Since the Second World War the greeting has been banned because of the Nazi-reference, although no official statement on this is known.


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.


The Olympic Movement is very protective of its symbols; among other things, it claims an exclusive copyright on any arrangement of five rings, irrespective of alignment, color or lack thereof, as well as to any use of the word Olympic. They have taken action against numerous groups seen to have violated this trademark, including the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based band The Hopefuls (formerly The Olympic Hopefuls), 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 and others. But a few companies have been successful in using the Olympic name, such as Olympic Paint, which even has a paintbrush in the form of a torch as its logo.

See also

Modern Olympics movement

  • The Olympic Flag: a flag representing the five inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism.
  • The Olympic Anthem: played during the opening and closing ceremonies of Olympic Games and on certain other occasions
  • The Olympic Flame: a flame burning day and night for the duration of the Olympic Games.
  • The Olympic mascot: an animal native to the area or occasionally human figures representing the cultural heritage of the place where the Olympic Games are held.
  • The Olympic motto, in Latin: "Citius, Altius, Fortius"; which means, "Faster, Higher, Stronger".
  • The Olympic Order: an award conferred by the International Olympic Committee
  • 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."
  • The Olympic emblem: the emblem of every edition of the Olympic Games, usually combining the Olympic Rings with some elements representing the host city or country and its culture.
  • The Olympic poster: the poster of every edition of the Olympic Games, usually combining the Olympic aim with some elements representing the host city or country and its culture.
  • The three Olympic pillars: sport, environment, culture.



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