Why Are There Five Rings in the Olympic Flag?
The flag used at the Olympic Games has a white background with five interlaced circles representing the five inhabited continents: Africa, America, Asia, Australasia and Europe. Each symbol has a different color: red, yellow, green, black and blue. But the colors are merely decorative and in no way represent particular continents.
The symbol was originally designed in 1912 by de Coubertin. According to Coubertin, the colors of the rings together with the white of the background included the colors composing every competing nation’s flag at the time. Upon its initial introduction, Coubertin stated the following in the August 1912 edition of Olympique:
… the six colors [including the flag’s white background] combined in this way reproduce the colors of every country without exception. The blue and yellow of Sweden, the blue and white of Greece, the tricolor flags of France, England, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Hungary, and the yellow and red of Spain are included, as are the innovative flags of Brazil and Australia, and those of ancient Japan and modern China. This, truly, is an international emblem.
In his article published in the Olympic Revue the official magazine of the International Olympic Committee in November 1992, the American historian Robert Barney explains that the idea of the interlaced rings came to Pierre de Coubertin when he was in charge of the USFSA, an association founded by the union of two French sports associations and until 1925, responsible for representing the International Olympic Committee in France: The emblem of the union was two interlaced rings (like the vesica piscis typical interlaced marriage rings) and originally the idea of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung: for him, the ring symbolized continuity and the human being.
The 1914 Congress was suspended due to the outbreak of World War I, but the symbol and flag were later adopted. They would first officially debut at the Games of the VII Olympiadin Antwerp, Belgium, in 1920.
The symbol’s popularity and widespread use began during the lead-up to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Carl Diem, president of the Organizing Committee of the 1936 Summer Olympics, wanted to hold a torchbearers’ ceremony in the stadium at Delphi, site of the famous oracle, where the Pythian Games were also held. For this reason he ordered construction of a milestone with the Olympic rings carved in the sides, and that a torchbearer should carry the flame along with an escort of three others from there to Berlin.
The ceremony was celebrated but the stone was never removed. Later, two American authors, Lynn and Gray Poole, when visiting Delphi in the late 1950s, saw the stone and reported in their History of the Ancient Games that the Olympic rings design came from ancient Greece. This has become known as “Carl Diem’s Stone”. This created a myth that the symbol had an ancient Greek origin.
The current view of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is that the symbol “reinforces the idea” that the Olympic Movement is international and welcomes all countries of the world to join. As can be read in the Olympic Charter, the Olympic symbol represents the union of the “five continents” of the world and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games.
However, no continent is represented by any specific ring. Prior to 1951, the official handbook stated that each colour corresponded to a particular continent: blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia and Oceania and red for the Americas; this was removed because there was no evidence that Coubertin had intended it (the quotation above was probably an afterthought). Nevertheless, the logo of the Association of National Olympic Committees places the logo of each of its five continental associations inside the ring of the corresponding color.