What Do the Olympic Rings Symbolize?

The meaning of the Olympic Games’ five interlocking rings is not at all black-and-white.

The rings of blue, black, yellow, red and green, which make up one of the most recognized symbols in the world, traditionally represent the five different areas of the world involved in the Olympics (North and South America are considered one area, along with Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe).

The International Olympic Committee states that the Olympic Symbol reinforces the international component of the Olympic Movement as the meeting of athletes from around the world. According to the Olympic Charter, “The Olympic symbol expresses the activity of the Olympic Movement and represents the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games.”

But the six colors, if you include the white background in the Olympic flag, were intended to represent the various colors seen on the flags of nations competing in the Games of Olympiads I, II, III, IV, and V. And historian David Young says it is likely that these rings could also symbolize the previous five Olympiads completed prior to 1914.

Each color does not correspond to a specific continent, as is commonly thought; besides, there are technically seven continents on Earth, not five.

“It is a true international emblem,” wrote Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympic Games, in 1913. He spoke of uniting the different regions of the world, not the different continents.

Coubertin designed the Olympic flag in 1913, at the outbreak of World War I, to symbolize peace and fraternity. Though adopted the following year as the official Olympic symbol, he had to wait until after World War I to see the Olympic flag flown at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Coubertin had commissioned the Olympic flag to mark the 20th anniversary of the IOC’s founding, June 23, 1914, in Paris.

The 1928 St. Moritz winter games in Switzerland were the first to display the Olympic rings on the official Olympic poster. But it was not until the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin that this emblem became widely popular.

As an image of Olympism, Coubertin thought the rings had deep significance, that of the union of humanity.

American historian Robert Barney says, in his November 1992 article “The Great Symbol” published in Olympic Review (the official publication of the International Olympic Committee), that the roots of the inspiration for the rings came from Coubertin’s previous work.

In 1890, Coubertin became president of the Union des Sociétés Francaises des Sports Athlétiques (USFSA), a French sports-governing body. The USFSA arose as a result of a merger between two French sporting bodies, one led by Coubertin. To represent this merger, the USFSA had created a logo of two interlocking rings that was displayed on the uniforms of USFSA athletes starting in 1893 — one year before Coubertin initiated the Sorbonne Conference in Paris where the Modern Olympic Movement began.

The larger symbolism of circles was likely not lost on Coubertin either. Circles, or rings, represent wholeness, according to psychologist Karl Jung, and when joined together, continuity.

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