It was on a fine day in 1894 that Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, a French aristocrat and intellectual, convened a congress in Paris with the goal of reviving the ancient Olympic Games. The congress agreed on proposals for a modern Olympics, instituted the International Olympic Committee, and gave it the task of planning the 1896 Athens Games.
But it was only sixteen years later at the 1912 Stockholm Games — the first Games featuring athletes from all five inhabited parts of the world — that a design of five interlocked rings, drawn and coloured by hand first appeared in writing. This ring design would go on to become the emblem of the IOC’s 20th anniversary celebration in 1914; and a year later became the official Olympic symbol.
Though not used at the 1912 Olympics, the design will wait another eight years to make its debut at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium. Here, it was used on flags and signage at the 1916 Games since the 1914 games were canceled because of the ongoing World War.
In explaining the concept behind the design, Coubertin said:
A white background, with five interlaced rings in the centre: blue, yellow, black, green and red … 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.
Coubertin used a loose interpretation of continent that included Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania, though no specific ring represents any specific continent.
The inspiration for Coubertin’s design may have come from his time as president of the French sports-governing body, the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). The Union was formed when two smaller sporting bodies were merged, and to symbolise this, a logo of two interlocking rings— one red and one blue, on a white background was created. It is possible that this background with the USFSA may have inspired him to come up with what will become the future Olympics logo.
Because the rings were originally designed as a logo for the IOC’s 20th anniversary and only later became a symbol of the Olympics, it’s also probable that Coubertin originally thought of the rings as symbols of the five Games already successfully staged.
For the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, President of the Local Organising Committee, Carl Diem wanted to relay the Olympic Flame from its lighting point in Olympia, Greece to the Olympic stadium in Berlin. Included in the relay was a stop at the ancient Olympic stadium in Delphi for a torchbearers’ ceremony similar to what was done in ancient Greece, complete with a similar-looking 3-foot-tall stone altar as was used in the ancient Olympics with the ring design chiseled into its sides.
After the ceremony, the torch runners went on their way and no one ever remembered to remove the stone from the stadium in Delphi. Some two decades later, British researchers visiting Delphi noticed the ring design on the stone and concluded that the stone was an ancient altar, and that the ring design had been used in ancient Greece. But the real story behind the altar was later revealed, and Carl Diem’s Stone was moved from the ancient stadium at Delphi, and placed near the entrance to the historic site.