At the heart of symbolism

The five Olympic rings

(Detailed page)


Olympic flag

The colours of the flag

As protagonist of the Olympic revival, Pierre de Coubertin would have declared that the colours of the rings evoked the five continents represented at the games:













Apart from black, these colours are contained in the visible light spectrum represented by the white background. This “ethnic” interpretation was questioned. In fact, why should Europeans be assimilated to blue men and Oceanians to little green fellows ? Pierre de Coubertin underlined with accuracy that these six colours constituted the basic colours of the flags of the world at that time.

Indeed, most of the countries of the world resort to combinations of colours in the drawing of their flags according to the following approximate distribution:













The interlocking of the rings could reflect this, knowing that the Olympic flag is the only one to display six colours.

The interlocking rings

The adoption of the interlocking rings was codified by the IOC meeting in Lausanne in 1931 1.

In a number of traditions, the ring symbolizes the nature of the links between people and people with gods.

In ancient Greece, Prometheus was liberated by Heracles thanks to an iron ring set with a piece of rock that he had to carry on his finger the rest of his days. This ring at the origin of his liberation was to remind him forever of the chains that kept him tied to the rock and his subordination to Zeus.

According to another legend, the king Polycrates of Samos enjoyed such good fortune that he was convinced that it could not last. In order to avert his anguish, he decided to sacrifice a precious object to which he was particularly attached to the gods. He climbed to the top of a tower and threw a superb ring set with a magnificent emerald into the sea. Unfortunately for him, a fish swallowed the ring, the fish was caught in the nets of a fisherman and the fisherman brought the fish to the king. By his gesture, Polycrates wanted to influence his destiny and perpetuate his good fortune. However, the sea rejected his offering. The gods do not undo what they did whenever a material offering is presented to them. The ring symbolizes here at once the vain attempt to escape a destiny (disastrous or happy) and the acceptance of one's own fate that constitutes the only true sacrifice.

These two Greek legends are sufficient to show that the ring can mean at once liberation and acceptance. The conqueror of a test of the Pan-Hellenic competitions could surpass his status of citizen and become a hero while being subject to the rules prescribed by the gods and the organizers of the meeting.

From a general point of view, the ring symbolizes tied and untied links or bonds, indissoluble and liberating links as underlined by the drawing of the interlocking rings.

Would the contemporary athlete have at once liberated himself from his condition of simple citizen or subject to attain the stature of “god of the stadium” and free himself from the Olympian rules stipulated in the charter adopted by the IOC ? It could be as this charter says in substance:

Olympism is a philosophy of life exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind…Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

Does it mean that no athlete of the Pan-Hellenic competitions has ever been tempted to hold up his oath to ridicule ? Of course not. At that time, the issue was more important and the glory less fleeting than today. Some even used their social position to do it openly.


  • Nicolaos Yalouris:
  • “The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece”. Ekdotike Athenon Publisher, 1977.
  • Allen Guttmann:
  • “The Olympics”. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1992.
  • Olympic Movement:
  • Official site
  • The golden legend.

1 back The International Committee of the Olympic Games, known today as International Olympic Committee, was founded by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, after the games of Athens. The recruitment of its members is done by coopting. Supreme authority of the Olympic movement, it sits in Lausanne since 1981. The IOC is a non-governmental international organization of Swiss private law. It is the exclusive owner of the brand and Olympic rings at the source of considerable returns. Even the Paralympic games, introduced in 1960, cannot take advantage of the Olympic rings and even less flag.