08 Apr 2015
In 1913, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin first sketched five interlocking rings – blue, black, red, yellow and green – on a white background, it would have been difficult to imagine the impact they would have over the course of the next century and beyond.
The origin of the Rings
Coubertin had conceived the rings as an “international emblem” to reflect the global reach of the Olympic Movement following the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, which was the first time that athletes had come from all five continents to compete. One year later, the five rings first appeared at the top of a letter written by Coubertin. “These five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism and ready to accept its fruitful rivalries,” wrote Coubertin in a 1913 edition of Olympic Review.
“In addition, the six colours combined in this way represent the colours of every country, without exception. This is a real international emblem.”
The Olympic rings made their official debut at the IOC Congress in Paris in 1914 and were seen at the Olympic Games for the first time in 1920, when the Olympic flag was first raised in Antwerp. Since then, the rings have gone on to become one of the world’s most recognised symbols, seen by billions of people during each edition of the Games and spread throughout the world as the official symbol of the Olympic Movement. The global recognition of the Olympic rings is down to the uniqueness of the symbol and the meaning each one of us attaches to it. For some, they simply represent the Olympic Games and the pinnacle of sporting achievement, while one of the meanings Coubertin conferred upon the rings was the union of the five continents of the world. They are interlaced to show the universality of Olympism and the meeting of the athletes of the world during each edition of the Olympic Games.
But, above all, the rings are the visual representation of Olympism – a philosophy of life that places sport at the service of humankind, and this gives them a timeless, universal significance.
The Olympic values: the unique symbolism of the Rings
According to independent research* commissioned by the IOC following the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, 93 per cent of people correctly identified the Olympic rings – making it the most widely recognised among the major global symbols surveyed. In addition, there was almost equally strong recognition of the symbol across geographies amongst men and women, and across all age ranges. Survey respondents strongly associated the Olympic symbol with values such as “global”, “inspirational”, “friendship”, “diversity”, “peace” and “excellence”.
According to Jean-Noël Kapferer, an international brand consultant and author of The New Strategic Brand Management, these positive universal values help give the Olympic brand a unique and powerful identity, which transcends sport and makes it “more than a brand”. “The Olympic rings are one of the very first global, universal, non- religious signs,” he says. “Their symbolic power is enormous.”
Indeed, the wide-ranging activities of the Olympic Movement ensure that Olympism spreads far beyond the Olympic Games and is implemented on a day-to-day basis throughout the world. The Olympic Movement aims to build a better world by educating youth through sport. Ensuring the regular celebration of the Olympic Games is a critical cornerstone to support the promotion of the Olympic values and to enable numerous grassroots initiatives. Such initiatives, focusing on sustainability, gender equality, peace, development, education and ensuring equal access to sport for everyone, bring Olympism and its fundamental principles to life.
“The uniqueness of this brand is that it is much more than a brand,” adds Kapferer. “The Olympic rings are a universal symbol. In fact, the Olympic rings have become one of the most potent human symbols, deeply rooted in our collective subconscious, by promoting worldwide peaceful ideals.”
The Olympic Games: building the strength of the Olympic symbol
The research conducted after Sochi 2014 also revealed that both the Olympic Games and Olympic Winter Games have the highest awareness and appeal of all major global, regional and national domestic sports and cultural events surveyed, providing a unique and powerful platform for the Olympic brand.
Kapferer believes that it is this manifestation of Olympism at the Games that helps maintain the enduring strength of the Olympic brand.
“The Olympic Games provide a periodical opportunity for people to come together in the most intense shared emotional experience by collectively identifying with athletes who surpass themselves to push the boundaries of what human beings can achieve,” he says. “Without the massive worldwide audience of the Olympic Games and the fact that they do embody true, deep, universal human values, the Olympic symbol would not have reached such power today.”
According to research, the Games enjoy such huge appeal for a number of reasons that set them apart from any other sport or cultural event. Interestingly, they are seemingly contradictory, but when revealed are actually what help give the Games their unique power and attraction.
For instance, research has indicated that people believe the Games are just as much about taking part as winning, but also see there is no better achievement than winning a gold medal.
In addition, people think the Games are more than just a sports event, but also that they are the pinnacle of all sporting events. They believe the Games are about unity, peace and a global community, but also about a celebration of diversity and patriotism.
Commercial success: a hugely attractive symbol
From a marketing and branding perspective, the unique qualities and values inherent within Olympism help attract the world’s leading companies to The Olympic Partner (TOP) programme, with each keen to associate itself with the values of the Olympic Games and the Olympic brand. “The Games are important to sponsors as they have values that we all think are important,” explains Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of marketing and advertising multinational WPP. “There are very few other live events with this power.”
These commercial partnerships are crucial to the continued success of the Olympic Games and the promotion of the Olympic values, while also generating revenue in order to ensure the future financial security and stability of the Olympic Movement as a whole. In return, the Olympic Games provide an unparalleled marketing platform for Olympic partners, allowing them to showcase their businesses to billions of people.
“The Olympic Games are extremely powerful for many reasons,” confirms Sorrell. “They are a big live event, with big TV and digital coverage, which appeal to men, women and children.”
Indeed, despite being around for more than a century, the Olympic Games continue to appeal to new generations, with both London 2012 and Sochi 2014 attracting a younger TV audience than average. This continued appeal among young people is vital to the success of the Olympic brand, according to Sorrell.
“What’s very important is the image among youth,” he says. “Certainly from what we see from our research, in families with children the Olympic brand is stronger than among the general public. That’s good because it indicates youth has a role. Making sure that it’s relevant to youth, and to women as much as men, is very important.”
The future of the Rings
The IOC is looking towards the future to ensure the Olympic Games and Olympism continue to remain as relevant and appealing as possible to young people. At the same time, the IOC is working hard to invite more and more people to participate in the Olympic Movement, making it more accessible than ever before, while also ensuring that it retains its unique qualities and power.
The current discussions as part of Olympic Agenda 2020 will set the strategic framework for the entire Olympic Movement in the coming years. This, in turn, will help maintain the relevance of the Olympic brand, guaranteeing that Pierre de Coubertin’s century-old symbol continues to go from strength to strength over the next 100 years and beyond.