Olympic Games: An Icon’s Game

Since the opening ceremony, the 2020 Olympic Games have already left the entire world speechless. Especially when the stars of the show appeared. We aren’t talking about the athletes, but about the animated icons.

Tokyo 2020 animated
Copyright: Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee

When we think about the Olympic Games, not thinking about the pictograms that represent every discipline is impossible. They belong together because icons provide identity to each edition. They transcend the language barrier and help the whole world understand the same set of rules. 

They’ve been so important that they immortalized each Olympic Games competition.
That’s why in this article we’ll tell you the story behind these two-dimensional emblems.

*Also, writing an article like this is an athletic task on its own. That’s why in Flaticon we thought that, like the games, it should have a set of icons. So here we’ve assembled a collection with all of the Olympic pictograms. Also, with Flaticon’s editor you’ll be able to customize them before starting your download.*

As we said, this Olympic Game’s edition presents a huge change in terms of icons. That’s why our story begins in 2020. Or, to correct ourselves, in 2021.

Tokyo – 2020

Tokyo 2020
Copyright: Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee

The world’s context isn’t the only thing that made the Olympic Games from Tokyo 2020 special.
In this edition, we saw for the first time the official icons move (in case you missed the ceremony, check it here). This is a game-changing event because, before this edition, all the official pictograms were static. Now, they appear and disappear with a brief animation related to the sport they represent.
Bringing icons to life, they show some characteristics of each discipline.

This change sets a milestone. However, throughout the years, many design studies and professionals worked really hard to provide each edition a unique imprint. So let’s go back to the beginning.

Tokyo – 1964

Tokyo 1964
Copyright: Organizing Committee for the Games of the XVIII Olympiad

Berlin (1936) and London (1948) were the first Olympic Games that had icons. However, they weren’t considered “officials”. It wasn’t until Tokyo 1964 that the Olympic Games started using pictograms to represent each discipline.
These were designed by Yoshiro Yamashita and Masasa Katzumie. Just imagine the responsibility they had on their back.
They needed to come up with a pictographic system that could be understood by hundreds of different cultures and languages. And boy if they did it.
The secret relied on using few visual elements and schematized shapes. That’s how they ended up getting simple and easy-to-understand pictograms.

Mexico – 1968

Mexico 1968
Copyright: Organizing Committee of the Games of the XIX Olympiad, MEXICO 68

In the Olympic Games of Mexico 1968, they started using just little parts of the athletes to represent the whole discipline. The Urban Design Department of the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games was in charge of designing the pictograms. They were inspired by Huichol Indians’ designs.

Munich – 1972

Munich 1972
Copyright: ERCO GmbH Lüdenscheid

Otl Aicher designed the icons for this edition of the Olympic Games. And they were special because they planted a huge visual change. These pictograms were designed with a grid and angles of 45º and 90º. Something that inspired most of the icons that came after them.

Montreal – 1976

In this competition, something interesting happened. The committee decided to reuse Otl Aicher’s designs for Munich to offer a sense of visual identity continuity. However, they weren’t exactly the same. Designers Georges Huel and Pierre-Yves Pelletier made few adjustments.

Moscow – 1980

Moscow 1980
Copyright: Moscow Olympic Organizing Committee

An interesting fact about these games is that the organizers held a contest for different designers’ schools. The idea was to get some graduates and students to design the pictograms for the competition.
The winner was Nikolai Belkov.
He proposed more rounded icons with inclinations of 30º and 60º to give a more dynamic feel.

Los Angeles – 1984

Los Angeles 1984
Copyright: Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee

Although the committee wanted to use the same icons Otl Aicher created, they couldn’t get the rights to do so. Because of that, they held up another contest, but this time, between three design studies from the United States. The result was a very different iconography. 

Seoul – 1988 

Seoul 1988
Copyright: Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games

The element that separates these icons from the rest, is that in this edition, they started combining colors for the characters of each pictogram. These had a white torso while their limbs and head were black. 

Barcelona – 1992

Barcelona 1992
Copyright: COOB’92, S.A., Plaça de la Font Màgica, s/n, 08038 Barcelona

The icons of Barcelona’s games centered more on the artistic and visual aspects than the disciplines themselves. Each character tries to emulate the strokes of great artists from Barcelona like Dali. The results were really dynamic icons. 

Atlanta – 1996

Atlanta 1996
Copyright: Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee

The icons for this edition of the games tried to copy the pictures from ancient Greece. That’s why the human figure is so detailed, you can see this especially in the muscles of each character.

Sydney – 2000

Sydney 2000
Copyright: Sydney 2000, Organising Committee For The Games

Just like the Mexico 1968’s games, the idea behind the Saunders Design Studio’s icons was to show something typical from Australia. So, they created each pictogram with boomerangs. These icons aren’t just aesthetically interesting, but also, really dynamic. 

Athens – 2004

Athens 2004
Copyright: Athens 2004, Organising Committee For The Games

Same as the games of Atlanta, in Athens 2004 they tried to represent something typical from ancient Greece. However this time they focused on the remains of old vessels. This can be seen in the silhouettes of the characters and the irregular lines used to design them.

Beijing – 2008

Beijing 2008
Copyright: Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee

The main inspiration for the creation of these icons was the calligraphy from ancient China. You can appreciate this in the flow from every line that forms each character.

London – 2012

London 2012
Copyright: The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Limited

In terms of design, what makes these games unique was that these icons weren’t flat. They added a sense of 3D. Even though it may not look like they were so different from the others, this change was a really big innovation for the Olympic Games history. 

Río de Janeiro – 2016

Río de Janeiro 2016
Copyright: Rio de Janeiro Olympic Organizing Committee

If something makes the Brazilian landscape famous, it is its curvy and flowing lines. This was the main inspiration for the development of this edition’s icons. Also, by combining the strokes they manage to bring a sense of depth to every pictogram. 

Every Olympic Games had an identity of its own in part thanks to icons. These little pictograms got immortalized with each edition, and you can download, customize and even generate a pattern with them in Flaticon.

Which edition do you think had the best pictogram design? Leave us a comment.
Also, if you want to know more about some of the world’s most famous icons, check this article.