Post-war, the Olympic rings got new meaning. And it’s probably not what you’ve been told.
At the ancient Greek site Delphi, you'll find a stone altar, three feet tall, bearing a carving of the iconic Olympic rings.
Seeing this carving, it's easy to imagine it being chiseled into the stone by the very first Olympic champions — runners, wrestlers, and chariot racers — almost 3,000 years ago.
After all, the stone looks like you could trace it back to that time when the "games" were vicious battles played by athletes who offered sacrifices to the gods and feasted at ancient Olympic festivals.
And you wouldn't be the first to think that this stone was ancient.
Olympic ruins in Delphi. Image via yvanox/Pixabay.
American authors Lynn and Gray Poole visited Delphi in the late 1950s, and they thought the stone was an ancient relic, too. They even said so in their book, "History of the Ancient Olympic Games."
And before long, their story carried over to other publications, and it became accepted as fact that this stone in Delphi was the first, 3,000-year-old engraving of the iconic Olympic rings.
It's a great story, but here's the thing – it's not true.
The Olympic symbol we all recognize today was actually invented relatively recently by Pierre de Coubertin in 1913. Coubertin was president of the International Olympic Committee, co-founder of the modern Olympic Games, and a French aristocrat who loved boxing, fencing, and rowing.
Just the year before, the Summer Olympic Games had been held in Stockholm, and for the first time ever, athletes competed from all five inhabited parts of the world.
This inspired Coubertin to hand-draw the rings symbol as interlocked circles in five different colors (blue, yellow, black, green, and red). He created the design for the celebration of the International Olympic Committee's 20th anniversary in 1914.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Image via George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.
"These five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism and ready to accept its fertile rivalries," Coubertin wrote in the August 1913 Olympic Review. "Moreover, the six colours thus combined reproduce those of all the nations without exception."
In other words, no single ring represented a specific country, but the symbol as a whole on a white background included colors from all of the world's nations.
Coubertin had quite the reason to celebrate with the rings. By then, the IOC had successfully organized five Games — the first events of our modern Olympics.
Reviving the Games had also been Coubertin's idea. He idolized the ancient Greeks as athletes and as warriors, so it makes sense that the Olympics reflect their traditions at every step.
Coubertin's passion also explains why he would want to highlight those first five events. Some people supported him when he first introduced the idea of the modern Olympics, but nobody expected such explosive success.
Opening ceremony of the 1912 Olympic Games. Image via "The Olympic Games of Stockholm 1912 Official Report"/Wikimedia Commons.
That's why, as historian David Young says, it’s likely that Coubertin chose five rings to represent the first five Games.
And after the 1916 Summer Games in Berlin, Coubertin had hoped to add a sixth ring to the symbol, and many more after that, to honor each host country. He apparently envisioned eventually having a flag full of vibrant rings, reflecting a global array of nations.
But World War I thwarted Coubertin's plans to add more rings. In fact, it shut down the next Olympic Games altogether.
The rings' peaceful sentiment from pre-World War I Europe was gone. It was a whole new world — and one at war. Because of the fighting, the 1916 Games were canceled, and Coubertin's rings would have to wait to be presented to the world.
The war ended in 1918. But even for people in victorious countries like France and the United States, times were still tough. Survivors of the war were cynical, aimless, and traumatized. Gertrude Stein even named them The Lost Generation for that reason.
In that post-war climate, it must have been quite a task to reconvene the Games — no cynic would be interested in unity after different countries had just tried to annihilate each other. Even the IOC's basic task of identifying the participating countries was complicated, to say the least. The war had led to the establishment of new nations, like Czechoslovakia. And some of the previously participating nations, like Germany and and Austria, were banned after losing the war.
But finally, at the 1920 Olympics in Belgium, the Olympic rings made their debut, appearing on a white flag.
The Olympic flag flies in British Columbia in 2012. Image via Scazon/Flickr.
To address the hopelessness in the air, Coubertin adjusted his plans. Instead of a ring for each host country, he decided to keep the five rings, with each representing the "five continents" that come together for the Olympic Games.
His definition of "continent" is now a little outdated — he was referring to Africa, Asia, America, Australia, and Europe. But that message of unity resonated at the time, and it has continued to resonate throughout the years.
In fact, Coubertin's logo became so prevalent that it showed up on a certain stone in Delphi, Greece.
Yep, that famous stone carving was actually created in 1936 — not in ancient Greek times. It was made as a movie prop for a torchbearers' ceremony and left behind after the year's Summer Olympic Games in Berlin.
Still, while that movie prop might have skewed the real story of the rings, it helped popularize the Olympic rings as a symbol of worldwide unity.
Image via Atos International/Wikimedia Commons.
And fortunately, the true meaning behind the rings has remained. Today, the official Olympic charter reads, "The Olympic symbol expresses the activity of the Olympic Movement and represents the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games."
Team USA's relationship with the Olympic rings symbol has spoken to worldwide unity from the very beginning. At those 1920 Olympics when the rings debuted, the United States flag bearer was Ireland-born track and field athlete Pat McDonald — the U.S.'s first foreign-born representative.
Celebrating global unity might have seemed like an impossible task after an event as dire as a world war, but Coubertin's work inspired people to do just that.
With one man's passion as the seed, a logo bloomed into more than just a logo. Now, the Olympic rings adorn a flag to signal a time for peace, for sportsmanship, and for breaking barriers between us by recognizing what unites us.
At the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Games, the rings will appear on Team USA's new heated parkas as we once again witness nations gathering from around the world.
It's no wonder that this symbol continues to bring us together. The Olympic rings have always carried hope for a more harmonious world, and they'll continue to do so in our future.