Why Are Olympic Logos So Hard to Design?
The Olympic Games are an exercise in branding
Friday’s Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony should serve to remind us that in a fundamental way, the Olympic Games are an exercise in branding. While host nations try to communicate a positive image to the rest of the world, the International Olympic Committee attempts to uphold the spirit of the Olympic movement in the face of mounting challenges to its mythology.
At the heart of these branding efforts are graphic identities that often have been among the most memorable aspects of the events themselves. From the op-art-inspired graphics for Mexico City 1968 to the Strahlenkranz (“Garland of Rays”) mark for Munich 1972 to Los Angeles 1984’s “Stars in Motion,” Olympic logos have had an outsized impact. In his classic History of Graphic Design, Philip B. Meggs went as far as to say that “graphics helped restore the Olympics as an international celebration after terrorist activities (1972) and political boycotts (1980, 1984) had tainted the games.”
But times have changed, and Tokyo’s road to Olympic symbolism has not been a smooth one. Its first 2020 Olympic logo, unveiled in 2015, was rejected soon afterward when it was discovered that it bore a striking resemblance to the symbol for a Belgian theater. Although plagiarism was suspected, it may have just been that there are only so many simple graphic devices that can be employed without designing one that looks like another from somewhere else in the big world, as Haiti and Liechtenstein discovered in 1936 when their Olympic delegations arrived at the Berlin games and realized that their flags were identical. In any event, the offending logo, with a design based on a capital T and featuring a monolith straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was nothing to write home about.
Its replacement, chosen from almost 15,000 designs submitted as part of an open competition, was created by Asao Tokolo, who dubbed it his “Harmonized Checkered Emblem.” Using three types of rectangles to form a circular symbol in a traditional Japanese pattern, the logo, according to the IOC, “represents different countries, cultures and ways of thinking. It incorporates the message of ‘Unity in Diversity.’”