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In 1913, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, created one of the most recognizable logos in the world. The symbolism of the five intertwined colored rings, representing the participating continents and the “flags of all nations” united in the sporting endeavor, is simply transmitted and easily grasped.
A good logo communicates its message in an effective visual manner and de Coubertin certainly achieves this. It has become the basis on which the logos of the Games are built.
With the next Games in Paris in 2024, it’s worth looking at the first city to design its own Olympic logo. The Paris Games of 1924 were represented by a simple line-drawn ship on a shield background with the words difficult to read on top. Legendary American graphic designer Milton Glaser, famous for his iconic “I heart NY” logo, described it as a “bad start”.
But Paris is not the only city struggling to create a memorable logo. The history of the Olympic logos shows that it is not easy to strike the delicate balance between capturing the spirit of the Games and that of the host city. There have been a few cities that look okay, but there have been logos over the years that range from culturally irrelevant to controversial.
De Coubertin’s design first appeared on the 1920 ‘Antwerp Flag’. But when this embodiment of noble idealism appeared at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it was exhibited alongside a another of the most recognizable symbols of the 20th century, the Nazi swastika.
A simple black and white line drawing, the majority of the Berlin Games logo is echoed by a sinister-looking eagle, a common Nazi symbol, towering over the top of the Olympic rings. Curling under the claws of the bird, the rings are flattened – an omen of coming political oppression.
Beginning in the 1930s, the growing influence of modernist “less is more” design saw the logos of the Summer and Winter Games increasingly adopt a visual simplification.
The growth of multinational companies after WWII fueled the need for corporate identity schemes capable of visually communicating with an international and multilingual audience. The visual clarity and abstraction of the “international typographic style” (often referred to as the Swiss school) were well suited to work and also adopted for world events like the Olympics.
The logo of the previous Tokyo Games in 1964, designed by Yusaku Kamekura and Masaru Katsumi, features a red sun with golden rings and bold lettering that perfectly embodies this minimalist style. Milton Glaser ranked the Games logo as his favorite for the clear and simple “the pieces fit together” way. Kamekura’s use of striking photographs in his Olympic posters is another feature of Swiss modernism and his identity scheme successfully expresses a dynamic and modernizing Japan.
For many, this system’s approach to graphic design peaked at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Designer Otl Aicher’s logo, a radiant black and white spiral beneath the Olympic rings, is part of a larger and very cohesive design scheme. Its uniformity is achieved through a restrained color palette and an intricate geometric grid format that underlies everything – from posters to iconic pictograms for each sport. However, Aicher’s design, like all modernist designs, has also been criticized for being too visually neutral and not symbolically enough culturally.
Cultural identity and sport
There have been logos that have successfully incorporated their culture.
The 1968 logo for the Olympiad in Mexico City, for example, is widely revered for embodying local cultural identity by combining contemporary and Mexican folk art. Through its use of repeated line patterns and bright colors, a haunting modern logo that could be animated for film and television was created.
Since then, other creations have tried to achieve the same status of icon by finding the right balance between cultural identity and sport.
Designer Wolff Olins’ logo for London 2012, a fragmented collection of jagged shapes in garish colors, seemed to speak to no one. It sparked an uproar when it was first released and has even been derided in the design press.
Yet after the GB team did so well, winning 65 medals, the youthful, graffiti-inspired logo and creepy one-eyed mascots were re-evaluated as a successful attempt to break away from the stereotypical look of the previous games. It was seen as a logo, as well as director Danny Boyle’s original opening ceremony, which gave Britain a sense of its modern identity and spoke volumes about the idiosyncratic quality of British creativity.
Asao Tokolo’s designs for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic logos embody sophistication and respect for Japanese tradition in the indigo blue check pattern. More debatable is whether the message of “unity in diversity”, in the use of three varieties of rectangles, is widely understood.
The upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games will share a logo in an effort by the International Olympic Committee to be as inclusive as possible. But brand design experts were less complimentary about the attempt to visually combine the gold medal, the Olympic flame and Marianne (the symbol of French republicanism) in the logo. They likened the graphical representation, which depending on how you look at it, to a weirdly sexist 1920s flapper rather than a modern sports car.
The Olympic Games have come full circle in 100 years: from Paris, back to Paris. But designing a successful host city logo didn’t get any easier. Critics of the decades-long political controversies surrounding the Games even suggest that the Olympic logo now embodies other ideas, such as spiraling costs, corruption, social oppression and environmental impact.
As such, designing an Olympic logo that successfully captures the spirit of the event, while resonating with a local and global audience, has undoubtedly become increasingly difficult.
Christopher Brown, Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design, Nottingham Trent University
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