Inspired by the ancient tournament held in Olympia, Greece, from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, the modern Olympic Games began in 1894 and have become the world’s biggest spectacle of sporting talent.
For the design world, they’ve also come to present one of the world’s toughest branding challenges: how to convey the spirit of a sporting event, the culture of its host, the patriotism of its host nation, elements of both heritage and modernity, and more… all in a design simple enough to work in a multiplicity of environments, from wayfinding signage to printed material, giant billboards to tiny mobile screens.
And that’s not to mention the competing tangle of cross-border committees to navigate and stakeholders to please. In fact, it’s incredible that all Olympic logos don’t all emerge as either bland and uninspiring or just a hot mess. On the contrary, these 10 classic logos show just how world-class tournaments can inspire world-class design.
01. Helsinki 1952
The earliest Olympic Games logos were either solely typographic or designed to resemble some kind of heraldic element. But all that changed in 1952 Helsinki Games, which saw this beautiful logo inspired by the flag of Finland. The single-colour design combined minimal type and flat images in a one-colour design that still looks strikingly modern today.
02. Mexico City 1968
In 1968 a team led by Lance Wyman was asked by Olympic Commitee chairman Pedro Ramírez Vázquez to: “Create an image showing that the games are in Mexico, that isn’t an image of a Mexican wearing a sombrero sleeping under a cactus.” They achieved that and more, creating a stunning logotype that to this day is still regarded as a design classic. Expanding the geometry of the five Olympic rings to generate the number ’68’, this deceptively simple design takes in influences of both Mexican folk art and 1960s pop art, brilliantly combining both the heritage and the modernity of Mexico, with not a stereotype in sight.
03. Munich 1972
While most Olympic logos seek to incorporate elements of patriotic pride, by 1972 the economic giant of West Germany was confident enough to take a different tack. Instead, its Games’ geometric logo was designed specifically to avoid reference to any particular country: a theme of global unity that became all the more poignant after the terrorist murder of 11 Israeli Olympians. Strongly inspired by the Modernist tradition, it featured a stylised sun and made clever use of a spiral effect to show rays of hope and optimism bursting out of the emblem.
04. Moscow 1980
Held at the height of the Cold War, the Moscow Olympic Games were a big deal for the USSR, as a way of projecting itself as a ‘normal’ modern nation. However, in a world sharply divided between socialism and capitalism, and in the face of a US boycott, the communist nation was also determined to stick to its guns. This stunningly uncompromising logo design casts both Soviet symbolism (the red star atop lines representing the Kremlin) and the Olympic rings in the strident red of socialist ideology. This may have been intimidating to some of the athletes at the time, but it still stands up today as a minimalist design classic.
05. Los Angeles 1984
Four years after the USSR, the Games returned to the USA, and this logo design by Robert Miles Runyan & Associates was as patriotic as its Soviet predecessor. Draped in the national colours of red, white and blue, there was no doubt where this Olympics was being held. Furthermore, the stars at the top (symbolising the US flag) are fragmented into go-faster stripes, reflecting both the country’s dynamism and the athleticism of the event. Plus the way the stars are interlocked echo the rings below, subtly tying “American values” to those of the Olympic movement.
06. Nagano 1998
Most Olympic logos that have tried to be too literal, incorporating images of actual athletes in the design, have ended up messy and unfocused. Here’s the exception. Hosting the Winter Games in 1988, the Japanese city of Nagano released this logo design, known as the ‘Snowflower’. With an abstracted athlete making up each ‘petal’ of the structure, along with its grey shadow, there’s a real sense of verve and energy to this design. Striking the perfect balance between too literal and too abstract, this design is both uniquely Japanese and pleasingly universal.
07. Athens 2004
2004 was another landmark year for the Olympics: the first time the modern Games had returned to the land of their birth. And a proud nation presented a logo design for the event that was couldn’t have been more Greek. Created by Wolff Olins and their Greek partners Red Design, this distinctive design centres around a hand-drawn olive wreath (the traditional prize given to Olympics winners), in the country’s national colours. The emblem’s watercolour background also symbolises the seas and oceans surrounding this country of islands.
08. Beijing 2008
With China emerging in the 21st century as a major economic power, this logo for the 2008 Games, created by Guo Chunning, was packed with national pride. Depicting a traditional red Chinese seal (the colour of luck in China and the same shade as the country’s flag), the emblem features a dynamic figure which is also a stylised version of the word ‘jing’ (which means ‘capital’ and is the second part of the city’s name). Reminiscent of a runner crossing the finishing line, the figure’s curves are suggestive of a traditional Chinese dragon, while its open arms symbolise an invitation by China to the world to share in its culture.
09. Sochi 2014
The design for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 was unique for a number of reasons. Unlike most Olympic logos (with the exceptions of Mexico 68 and London 2012), it contains no drawn elements. The lettering is all lower-case. And it doesn’t even feature the official name for the event, replacing it with a URL. Created by an eight-strong design team at Interbrand, this eyebrow-raising logo was described by the event’s organising committee as “the first digital brand in the history of the Olympic Movement”. Its radical simplicity (for example, using the .ru suffix to convey that Sochi is in Russia) means that when reduced to the smallest sizes on mobile, it still retains its clarity and design integrity.
10. Rio 2016
The Rio 2016 Games may have only just begun, but already its logo has entered the pantheon of Olympic greats. With elegant simplicity, it conveys a multitude of themes. People join hands in a spirit of global unity; the colours of sun, sea and forest represent Rio’s environment; the shape mirrors that of the famous Sugarloaf mountain. This uplifting, colour design was created by Brazilian agency Tatil, and you can read more in our articles How the Rio 2016 logo was created and 4 things you didn’t know about the Rio 2016 logo.