What Do The Olympic Rings Represent? The Rio Games Are All About Global Unity
When it comes to universal symbols that are immediately understood and recognized across cultures, there are few that have the same impact as the Olympic rings. This realization makes me wonder, of course, exactly what the Olympic rings represent. For many of us, the Olympic rings represent strength, athleticism, and a sense of inspiration, whether or not you are an aspiring athlete yourself. Looking back in history, though, it's fascinating to discover what went into creating the design and colors and see how the intended meaning behind the rings has taken on new meaning over the years.
The very first modern Olympic games — that is, the first time the Olympics as we know them today were held — occurred in 1896; however, it wasn't until the 1912 Games in Stockholm that the original Olympic rings came to be. Baron Pierre de Coubertin (who, you'll recall, was the guy who suggested the idea of the modern Olympics in the first place) designed and colored the interlocking rings we're familiar with today. According to Mental Floss, the design actually first appeared in a letter de Coubertin sent to a colleague. It took until 1915 for the rings to become the official symbol of the Olympics; they made their first debut at the Olympic Games in 1920 hosted in Antwerp, Belgium.
So, do the rings each represent a particular continent? Is there a cultural or symbolic tie for each color or the placement of the individual ring? According to the Olympic Museum, it appears that Coubertin didn't go that far into the design. He described his original creation as follows: "A white background, with five interlaced rings in the centre: blue, yellow, black, green and red. ... 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." The colors themselves, however, don't seem to have much meaning beyond that; ideed, the International Olympics Committee made a point of clarifying that there are no symbolic ties in reference to the specific colors of the rings.
So has this meaning changed over time? As of right now, according to the IOC, the rings continue to represent the five continents, thus merging North and South America into one America. As they state on their website, the rings are "interlaced to show the universality of Olympism and meeting of the athletes of the whole world during the Olympic Games." To me, it seems that the intended meaning and our current understanding are fundamentally the same. While competition is obviously key, the Olympics are ultimately about supporting your country and celebrating athleticism, drive, and a chance for the gold.