At the ancient Greek site Delphi, you’ll find a stone altar, three feet tall, bearing a engrave of the iconic Olympic rings .
Find this carve, it’s easy to imagine it being chiseled into the stone by the very first Olympic champions — athletes, wrestlers, and chariot racers — virtually 3,000 years ago.
After all, the stone looks like you could trace it back to that time when the “games” were vicious combats played by athletes who offered sacrifices to the gods and feasted at ancient Olympic celebrations.
And you wouldn’t be the first to think that this stone was ancient.
American authors Lynn and Gray Poole visited Delphi in the late 1950 s, and they thought the stone was an ancient relic, too. They even said so in their book, “History of the Ancient Olympic Games.”
And before long, their tale carried over to other publications, and it became accepted as fact that this stone in Delphi was the first, 3,000 -year-old engraving of the iconic Olympic rings.
It’s a great tale, but here’s the thing- it’s not true.
The Olympic symbol we all distinguish today was actually invented relatively recently by Pierre de Coubertin in 1913. Coubertin was president of the International Olympic Committee, co-founder of the modern Olympic Games, and a French aristocrat who loved boxing, fencing, and rowing.
Just the year before, the Summer Olympic Games had been held in Stockholm, and for the first time ever, athletes competed from all five inhabited parts of the world .
This inspired Coubertin to hand-draw the rings symbol as interlocked circles in five different colors( blue, yellow, black, green, and red ). He created the design for the celebration of the International Olympic Committee’s 20 th anniversary in 1914.
“These five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism and ready to accept its fertile rivalries, ” Coubertin wrote in the August 1913 Olympic Review. “Moreover, the six colours thus combined reproduction those of all the nations without exception.”
In other words , no single ring represented a specific country, but the symbol as a whole on a white background included colourings from all of the world’s nations.
Coubertin had quite the reason to celebrate with the rings. By then, the IOC had successfully coordinated five Game — the first events of our modern Olympics .
Reviving the Games had also been Coubertin’s idea. He adored the ancient Greeks as athletes and as warriors, so it constructs sense that the Olympics reflect their traditions at every step.
Coubertin’s passion also explains why he would want to highlight those first five events. Some people supported him when he first introduced the idea of the modern Olympics, but nobody expected such explosive success.
That’s why, as historian David Young says, it’s likely that Coubertin selected five rings to represent the first five Games .
And after the 1916 Summer Games in Berlin, Coubertin had hoped to add a sixth ring to the emblem, and many more after that, to honor each host country. He apparently foresaw eventually having a flag full of vibrant rings, reflecting a global array of nations.
But World War I frustrated Coubertin’s plans to add more rings. In fact, it shut down the next Olympic Game altogether .
The rings’ peaceful sentiment from pre-World War I Europe was gone. It was a whole new world — and one at war. Because of the fighting, the 1916 Game were canceled, and Coubertin’s rings would have to wait to be presented to the world.
The war ended in 1918. But even for people in victorious countries like France and the United States, times were still tough. Survivors of the war were cynical, aimless, and traumatized. Gertrude Stein even named them The Lost Generation for that reason.
In that post-war climate, it must have been quite a task to reconvene the Games — no cynic would be interested in unity after different countries had just tried to annihilate each other. Even the IOC’s basic task of identifying the participating countries was complicated, to say the least. The war had led to the establishment of new nations, like Czechoslovakia. And some of the previously participating nations, like Germany and and Austria, were banned after losing the war.
But eventually, at the 1920 Olympics in Belgium, the Olympic rings stimulated their debut, appearing on a white flag.
To address the hopelessness in the air, Coubertin adjusted his schemes. Instead of a ring for each host country, he decided to keep the five rings, with each representing the “five continents” that come together for the Olympic Games.
His definition of “continent” is now a little outdated — he was referring to Africa, Asia, America, Australia, and Europe. But that message of unity resonated at the time, and it has continued to resonate throughout the years .
In fact, Coubertin’s logo became so prevalent that it presented up on a certain stone in Delphi, Greece.
Yep, that famous stone carving was actually created in 1936 — not in ancient Greek times. It was made as a movie prop for a torchbearers’ ceremony and left with after the year’s Summer Olympic Games in Berlin.
Still, while that movie prop might have skewed the real story of the rings, it helped popularise the Olympic rings as a symbol of worldwide unity.
And fortunately, the true meaning behind the rings has remained. Today, the official Olympic charter reads, “The Olympic symbol conveys the activity of the Olympic Movement and represents the union of the five continents and the session of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games.”
Team USA’s relationship with the Olympic rings emblem spoke to worldwide unity from the very beginning . At those 1920 Olympics when the rings debuted, the United States flag bearer was Ireland-born track and field athlete Pat McDonald — the U.S.’s first foreign-born representative .
Celebrating global unity might have seemed like an impossible task after an event as dire as a world war, but Coubertin’s work inspired people to do simply that .
With one man’s passion as the seed, a logo bloomed into more than just a logo. Now, the Olympic rings adorn a flag to signal a period for peace, for sportsmanship, and for breaking obstacles between us by recognizing what unites us.
At the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Game, the rings will appear on Team USA’s new heated parka as we again witness nations gathering from around the world.
It’s no wonder that this symbol continues to bring us together. The Olympic rings have always carried hope for a more harmonious world, and they’ll continue to do so in our future.
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