Geography of the Olympic Rings

Caitlin Dempsey


The familiar five-ring Olympic logo was designed in 1912 and formally adopted in 1914.  Delayed due to World World I, the logo was first used at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.  

The official logo of the Olympics is made up of five interlocking rings against a white background.  The blue, yellow, black, green, and red rings against the white background were intended as a representation of the regions of the world with the colors pulled from the representing nations at the time.  

The interlocking of the rings was meant to symbolize the universality of the Olympics and to encourage world unity, particularly in a time where tensions between nations were high.  The idea for the Olympic rings came from the 1912 games held in Stockholm, Sweden, where, for the first time since the modern Olympic games were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece, representatives from all five continents competed.

Designed by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee and father of the modern Olympics, he first explained the design Olympique’s 1912 edition:

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“…the six colours [including the flag’s white background] thus combined reproduce the colours of all the nations, with no exception. The blue and yellow of Sweden, the blue and white of Greece, the tri- colours of France, England and America, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, the yellow and red of Spain next to the novelties of Brazil or Australia, with old Japan and new China. Here is truly an international symbol.”

And from Textes choisis, vol. II, p.470, 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 inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colors are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time.

While the five rings symbolize each of the world’s continents, the actual colors are not assigned to any particular continent.  Prior to 1951, the official Olympic handbooks did assign colors to each continent: blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia and Oceania and red for America (both North and South).  In January of 1951, a decision by the executive committee of the Olympic Review removed this reference stating:

On page 18 of the Green Booklet (both French and English versions) the text says that the colours of the Olympic Rings attributed to the respective five continents are as follows: Blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia and red for America. According to the documents in the possession of the Chancellery, no definite proof can be found that this allocation of colours was P. de Coubertin’s original idea at the very most he might perhaps have admitted it afterwards. To put an end to all controversy on this point the E. C. of the I. O. C. has decided to cancel this paragraph and not to allocate any colours to the various continents. The C. E. begs all those interested to take note of this. (Bulletin du Comité International Olympique, Number 25, January 1951)

 Official Olympic Rings
Official Olympic Rings

Reinterpreting the Olympic Rings

Brazilian artist Gustavo Sousa has reinterpreted the five Olympic rings and resized them based on different socioeconomic factors for each continent.  In his series of infographics, the colors have been reassigned (according to French blog Fubiz) with the following: Oceania: blue, Europe: Black, America: red, Asia: green, and Africa: yellow.  

Other than the stark color of the resized rings, no other interpretation is provided: no legend, scale bar, or metadata, leading viewers to engage in a debate on various sites posting about the rings about which colors really represented which continents.  

Exactly what the artist intended, Sousa explained in an interview“The reason I didn’t reveal which is which because you can almost figure that out as you read through; I thought that process of discovery was interesting.

Also, according to that same article in Fast Design, the number of infographics is also tied to the Olympics: there are sixteen in all, one for each day of the Olympics.  

The resulting infographics were first posted to by Sousa.  

For more examples of spatial data visualized outside of a map, see Spatial Unmapped.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.