What Do the Olympic Rings Actually Mean?

The rings aren't just for show. They're the logo for a reason.

olympic rings tokyo 2020
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

You've seen them countless times and have long understood them to be the general symbol of the Olympics, but have you ever really considered what the Olympic rings actually mean? They're not just an insignificant prop dreamed up by some Mad Men-esque ad agency, they do indeed have symbolic and historic significance.

With the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo underway, here's a bit of history on the five colorful interlocking rings -- arguably among the most recognizable logos ever -- and how and why it's come to represent the biggest sporting event in the world. 

The Olympic rings started as a hand-drawn letterhead

The rings were initially conceived by the French aristocrat Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, who played an instrumental role in reviving the ancient Greek Olympic games in Athens in 1896. Following the 1912 games in Stockholm, he included a hand-drawn and colored version of the five interlocking rings at the top of a letter he sent to a colleague -- presumably a nod to the fact that Stockholm was the first games in which there were competitors from all five inhabited continents (North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania).

By 1914, the interlocking ring design was a big part of the International Olympic Committee's 20th anniversary celebration, and was on display on white flags as the official logo of the Antwerp games in 1920.

What do the Olympic rings represent and what do the colors mean?

They're designed to be inclusive. Besides the inherent symbol of unity embodied in five interlocking rings, the choice of colors is important to note. That's because when seen together (along with the flag's white background), the colors are the ones that appeared on all of the national flags at the time (though that is no longer true).

Per Rule 8 of 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.” For a while, it was thought that continents were assigned a specific color ring (e.g., blue represents Europe, black represents Africa, etc.) but the IOC clarified in 1951 that there was no evidence to support that. 

olympic rings guidelines
Screenshot via IOC Editorial Guidelines PDF

The Olympic rings are subject to very strict usage rules

Coupertin's initial hand-scrawled rings may have been a bit imperfect, but today the logo is highly regulated by the IOC, a body notorious for its militant enforcement of design and trademark rules.

In fact, there's a strict set of guidelines one must follow in order to reproduce them. For instance, the rings may only appear in the proper color sequence (from left to right: blue, black, and red across the top, with yellow and green on the bottom), and they may not be distorted or "enhanced" in any way. However, they may appear monochromatic, as long as they're featured in one of the five ring colors. They may only appear white if they're on a black background.

Also, host cities have to be extra careful about the emblems it designs to represent its games. That's because according to the code of conduct, the area covered by the rings (officially referred to as the "Olympic Symbol) "shall not exceed one third of the total area of the emblem." Good to know in case you one day become an Olympian and are itching to get a rings tattoo. 

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. Follow him @jwmcgauley.
Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow Dustin Nelson on Twitter.