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Icon of the month: Olympic rings

Simon Jones

From the archive: This article was first published in Summer 2008.

The hardest-fought competition at this summer's olympics in Beijing will probably be between Nike and Adidas. Each has around 4,000 retail outlets in China and both want more. Will Nike's tactics of sponsoring individual athletes bear most fruit, or will Adidas have more advantage from being an official partner?

The gold medal for sports branding, however, has already been won. More recognizable than even the inescapable McDonald's logo, the five Olympic rings have become the world's most identifiable symbol.1 They represent a sporting event, of course, but also stand in for an ideal expressed by its founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin: 'Union between men'.

As every aspiring athlete knows, each ring represents 'the five parts of the world which now are won over to Olympism and willing to accept healthy competition.'2 Not the famous 'Faster, higher, stronger', then, but a hint of 'The most important thing is not to win but to take part', a well-worn cliché that de Coubertin first heard in a sermon in London.

With 'taking part' being so critical to the endeavour, it is no surprise that boycotting the games has become a powerful tool. Some African countries refused to recognise their union with other nations during apartheid; the games were used by both sides in the Cold War to express their antipathy towards each other. Today [2008], despite wide-ranging western criticism of China's disregard of human rights, there is a new unity of purpose: accessing its burgeoning market. Claims that the spirit of 'Olympism' will force change in the People's Republic seem to imply that capitalism is inherently fraternal. The market may not be a game that every competitor can win - not when some players have structural advantages - but it's the taking part that counts.

The inspiration for the image was, some say, Carl Jung's illustration of the interlocking of masculine and feminine in two overlapping circles (the idea that de Coubertin copied an old Greek symbol is inaccurate, a myth caused by - who'd've thought it - the careless reporting of a pair of British journalists).

This picture is not only intentionally human, but plays on the idea of the circle as complete and inclusive. Not 'linked' so much as always inseparable.
If the logo has a 'spirit' it lives in the stories of great athletes, particularly of those who somehow transcend their sport and their own physical abilities. Like Emil Zátopek, who grunted his way to four gold medals ('I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time') but is remembered as much for initially refusing to compete.

His fellow distance runner Stanislav Jungwirth had been omitted from the Czech squad because of his father's anti-Russian activities. He was allowed to participate only when Zátopek threatened to embarrass the government by excluding himself. Zátopek went on to win gold, but on what should have been his triumphant return to Prague he was instead punished for his insubordination by being ordered to work as a street cleaner. He arrived for duty the next day only to find the streets spotless, his fellow citizens having paid their own respects.

This sentimental little tale sounds like a concoction but, true or not, in 2000 when he was posthumously awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal, it stood as an inspiration to those seeking their own understanding of the rings.
Perhaps the symbol thrives because it appeals to an ordinance beyond the power of the nation. Perhaps it operates beyond commercial chatter - piggybacking on it, urging the human to circumvent the institutional. At a Chinese Olympics supported by corporate cash, we may be about to find out.

1 The results of a survey carried out by Sponsorship Research International in six countries (Australia, Germany, India, Japan, Great Britain and the USA) in 1995 showed that 92% of those questioned correctly identified the Olympic rings, which made them the most-recognised symbol. They were followed by the McDonald's and Shell emblems (88%), Mercedes (74%) and the United Nations (36%).
2 De Coubertin in the August 1913 edition of Revue Olympique.

Addendum: The strict legal protection of the rings in 2012 suggests that, if the logo operates 'beyond commercial chatter', it is also somewhat beholden by commerce. And yet, for all the chagrin about London Olympic sponsorship, Games venues avoided the ad blitz now typical of modern sport. The rings hung solo in the arena like a cross in a chancel, looking back as much as looked upon.

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