FactCheck: Boris Johnson and the Olympic rings of truth
“Look at those five rings. Baron Pierre de Coubertin said that they symbolised the five great Olympic virtues of athleticism, sportsmanship, exertion, poverty, chastity…or whatever. Well, roughly those ones.”
Boris Johnson, 27 June 2012
Cathy Newman checks it out
It looked like magic: five giant Olympic rings hovering apparently in mid-air above the Thames. It was also one helluva media circus, and – perhaps not surprisingly given the £300,000 cost of making and installing the rings – the Mayor of London was clearly determined to milk it for all it was worth.
When I interviewed him this morning, he gestured towards the bridge with his customary flamboyance and began to explain just what those five rings represented. He didn’t get very far. But he piqued my curiosity.
So when I got back into the office, I thought I’d find out just what the rings meant, and if, as Boris Johnson, suggested, it had anything to do with the Olympic ideals.
The Mayor of London joined 2012 supremo Lord Coe on Tower Bridge to mark the final countdown to the start of the London Olympics.
The giant set of Olympic rings will dangle from Tower Bridge in a bid to “excite and inspire” Londoners, with just one month to go until the opening ceremony.
Asked to explain their significance, Mr Johnson quoted the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Games, and suggested that the five interlaced rings represented “athleticism, sportsmanship, exertion, poverty, chastity”.
The Olympic rings do indeed date from the time of Coubertin, the French aristocrat who founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894. The rings are one of the three Olympic symbols, along with the flame and the motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger).
The five interlocking rings, coloured blue-yellow-black-green-red from left to right, didn’t appear until 1914, when they were first superimposed on a white background to form the Olympic flag.
By then the modern Games was well established and the 1912 event was the first to attract competitors from all five continents.
That fact appears to have inspired Coubertin, who said in 1931 that the design of the flag “is symbolic; it represents the five continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colours are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time”.
The rings first appeared at the top of a letter written by Coubertin. He had drawn the design by hand and coloured them in by hand, perhaps inspired by the two interlaced rings worn by the athletes of the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques.
In contrast to the almost obsessive rules that surround the reproduction of the logo today, things were a little more relaxed in the 1920s. When the rings first appeared all five rings were laid out side by side on one level, not separated into two rows of two and three.
Contrary to one persistent myth, there was no ancient Greek inspiration for the logo.
The confusion began when Carl Diem, president of the organising committee of the 1936 Berlin games, had the rings carved into a rock to use as a prop for a theatrical ceremony held in the original Olympic stadium in Delphi.
The stone was left at the ancient site and when two British academics stumbled upon it at Delphi in the 1950s they published an academic paper suggesting that this was the classical design that had inspired the modern rings. In fact, the stone was a relic only of the Nazi era.
Another popular myth with slightly politically incorrect overtones was that each colour represents a different continent: blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia and red for the Americas.
In fact Coubertin never assigned a colour to a particular continent and official Olympic literature made that clear from the 1950s.
The baron did come up with a set of Olympic virtues, but unsurprisingly they are not the same as the qualities mentioned by the Mayor of London.
The founder of the modern Games listed respect, fair play, pursuit of excellence, joy in effort, and balance of mind, body and will as the most essential Olympic values.
The modern Olympic Movement trimmed this down to three key virtues: excellence, friendship and respect.
Add to these the key Paralympic concepts of courage, determination, inspiration and equality, and you have the seven modern Olympic and Paralympic values currently being drummed into the heads of London’s schoolchildren.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
Yes, there are Olympic virtues. No they’re not the ones Boris Johnson – in his finest rhetorical mode – listed. And no, they’re nothing to do with the rings.
Suspending those five multi-coloured hoops over Tower Bridge was a small feat of engineering, but FactCheck takes a pretty sceptical view about the hullabaloo surrounding today’s ceremony.
Never mind exertion, poverty and chastity: we’re extremely happy to celebrate the true Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect.