The Origins of the Olympic Rings

The Olympic rings on a barge on the river Thames.

DAVID HOLT from London, England / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Have you ever wondered where the five iconic Olympic rings came from? Learn about their origins and various uses.

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Olympic Rings Origins

Olympic rings amid landscaping with a building in the background.

Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

According to the IOC (International Olympic Committee), "the Rings appeared for the first time in 1913 at the top of a letter written by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. He drew and colored the rings by hand."

In the Olympic Review of August 1913, Coubertin explained that "these five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism and ready to accept its fertile rivalries. Moreover, the six colors thus combined reproduce those of all the nations without exception."

The rings were first used in the 1920 Olympic Games held in Antwerp, Belgium. They would have been used sooner, however, World War One interfered with the games being played during the war years.

Design Inspiration

While Coubertin may have given meaning as to what the rings meant after he designed them, according to historian Karl Lennantz, Coubertin had been reading a magazine illustrated with an advertisement for Dunlop tires that used five bicycle tires. Lennantz feels that the image of the five bicycle tires inspired Coubertin to come up with his own design for the rings.

But there are different opinions as to what inspired Coubertin's design. Historian Robert Barney points out that before Pierre de Coubertin worked for the Olympic committee, he served as the president of the French sports-governing body, the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). Its logo was two interlocking rings, red and blue rings on a white background. This suggests that the USFSA logo inspired Coubertin's design.

Using the Olympic Ring Logo

The IOC has very strict rules concerning the use of their trademarks, and that includes their most famous trademark the Olympic rings. The rings must not altered. For example, you can not rotate, stretch, outline, or add any special effects to the logo. The rings must be displayed in their original colors, or in a monochrome version using one of the five colors. The rings must be on a white background, but a negative white on a black background is allowed.

Trademark Disputes

The IOC has fiercely defended its trademarks, both of the image of the Olympic rings and the name Olympic. One interesting trademark dispute was with the Wizards of the Coast, famed publishers of Magic: the Gathering and the Pokemon card games. The IOC laid a complaint against Wizards of the Coast for a card game called Legend of the Five Rings. The card game features a logo of five interlocking circles. However, the U.S. Congress had given the IOC the exclusive rights to any symbol consisting of five interlocking rings. The logo for the card game had to be redesigned.

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Pierre de Coubertin

Pierre de Coubertin head shot, black and white photograph.

Photograph from Bain News Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) was the co-founder of the modern Olympic Games.

Coubertin was born to an aristocratic family in 1863 and was always an active sportsman who loved boxing, fencing, horse riding, and rowing. Coubertin was the co-founder of the International Olympic Committee, in which he held the position of Secretary-General and later President until 1925.

In 1894, Baron de Coubertin led a congress (or committee) in Paris with the intention of bringing back the ancient Olympic Games of Greece. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed and began planning the 1896 Athens Games, the first modern Olympic games.

According to the IOC, Pierre de Coubertin's definition of Olympism was based on the following four principles: to be a religion i.e. to “adhere to an ideal of a higher life, to strive for perfection,” to represent an elite “whose origins are completely egalitarian” and at the same time an “aristocracy” with all its moral qualities, to create a truce with “a four-yearly celebration of the springtime of mankind,” and to glorify beauty by the “involvement of the arts and the mind in the Games.”

Quotes of Pierre de Coubertin

The six colors (including the flag’s white background) combined reproduce the colors of all the nations, with no exception. This includes the blue and yellow of Sweden, the blue and white of Greece, the tri-colors of France, England, and America, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, the yellow and red of Spain next to the novelties of Brazil or Australia, with old Japan and new China. It is truly an international symbol.

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.

The Games were created for the glorification of the individual champion.

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Rings Malfunction

The Olympic rings in lights during the 2014 Opening Ceremony.

Pascal Le Segretain / Staff / Getty Images

Snowflakes transformed into four Olympic rings, with one failing to form during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Fisht Olympic Stadium on February 7, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

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Bellis, Mary. "The Origins of the Olympic Rings." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The Origins of the Olympic Rings. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The Origins of the Olympic Rings." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).