The Meaning of the Olympic Rings

The Olympic symbol is one of the most recognizable logos out there. But those rings weren't dreamed up at an advertising agency. They were hand-drawn on a letter to a colleague by the father of the modern Olympics, and every detail of what he drew had its own specific meaning.

Five by Five

French aristocrat Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin first proposed reviving the ancient Greek Olympic games in 1894. In 1896, he got his way: the first modern Olympic Games were held in their original birthplace of Athens, although only 14 nations participated in those flagship events. The 1912 Stockholm Games were the first to host athletes from all of the inhabited continents: North America, South America, Africa, Eurasia, and Oceania.

It was the year after those Olympic Games that Coubertin drew the design that would live on for more than a century: five interlocked rings, hand-colored blue, yellow, black, green, and red. That design appeared at the top of a letter he sent to a colleague, and in 1915, it became the official Olympic symbol.

The Symbolism

Why five rings? You may have guessed by now: it was to represent the five continents of the world, all of which had recently been featured at the Olympic Games. (While you may have learned that there are seven continents, what defines a continent is open to interpretation. In Coubertin's view, there were five.)

And what about the colors? Again, Coubertin's counting might not be the same as yours. He counted six colors, not five: the five colors of the rings, plus the white background.

Here's what Coubertin had to say about it in 1931: "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 continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colours are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time."

For a brand-new look at this ancient event, check out "The Games: A Global History of the Olympics" by David Goldblatt, which was released January 2018. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

What Do the Olympic Rings Stand For?

Written by Ashley Hamer January 17, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.