2021 Olympics Feature

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

by Morgan Searcy

Watching the athletes travel to Tokyo this year felt like a return to some semblance of normalcy. Our hearts were warmed by Olympic broadcasts of dreams coming true for athletes...The Summer 2020/21 Olympics was thanks to the participation of athletes, international journalists, a handful of spectators, including designers.

While the Games hold the world’s attention and are widely celebrated, the event has complications. Visual communication and design have played a role in both celebrations and critiques of The Olympic Games. After highlighting almost a month of Olympic design past and present on our social pages, we wanted the opportunity to look closer at some of the flaws and critiques of the Games throughout the years.

Designing for International Audiences

In recent decades the branding of Olympics has often given the world insight into the history and culture of the host country. While each city works to communicate unique characteristics of their local culture, there is importance to creating an approach that can be embraced by a global audience.

One example of a cultural clash occurred when Stockholm was awarded the Olympics in 1912. The country quickly organized a national poster competition and Olle Hjortzberg’s design for what would become the first official poster for an Olympic Games. However, the poster was banned in several countries because of the image of a nude athlete. Journalist, Philip Barker, recently wrote, “Although strategic ribbons were also added to preserve the modesty of the figures, the official Olympic report documented that in China, the postmaster general had forbidden the exhibition of the poster as it was ‘offensive to Chinese ideas of dignity. It was also reported that when the poster was displayed at a railway station in The Netherlands, local authorities confiscated the poster and claimed it was ‘in the highest degree immoral.’"

1912 Olympic Poster

Sweden customized the poster design and corresponding stamps into at least 16 different languages, communicating unity and pride in the 1912 Stockholm Games.

1912 Olympic Stamps

Gender Representation and the Pictogram

The 1964 Tokyo Games offered one of the first comprehensive pictogram programs and has become a standard for Olympic branding systems ever since, although not without controversy. In 1996, the Atlanta Olympic Committee's pictograms were criticized by the Women's Sports Foundation for being too masculine. The 31 silhouettes were intended to represent non-gender specific athletes, however a study concluded that the ‘universal figures’ were representing men. As a result, a few of the icons were redesigned to be more inclusive.

1996 Atlanta Olympics

Pictograms made an appearance at the opening ceremonies in Tokyo this year with the live interpretation of the 50 different events.

Growing Opposition to Hosting the Games

The idyllic image of unity that surrounds the modern Olympics is also coupled with protest rooted in controversies concerning politics and the immense financial and cultural strain for host cities.

In 1963, Colorado GovernorJohn A. Love had his eyes set on Denver winning the bid for the 1976 Winter Olympics. A 13 year+ planning project resulted in intense organization and resource allocation, typical investments from Olympic host cities. When the newly formed Denver Organizing Committee began promoting and planning the infrastructure, the committee selected Massimo Vignelli to propose visuals for the ​​76 Olympic Games.

An excited group pushing for Denver's Olympic bid while holding Massimo Vignelli posters, img source Denver Public Library

Vignelli, who shaped much of corporate America’s visuals in the mid-60’s/70’s, was unable to implement his tight grid systems and modernist vision for the Olympics, due to growing opposition from local communities.

source: Denver Public Library

Grassroots efforts popped up around Denver as the community came together in opposition to the economic and environmental implications of hosting the Games. The Denver Organizing Committee attempted to work around increasing objections, but ultimately the 1976 Olympics were given to Montréal to host instead.

Politics and Appropriation of Olympic Graphics

Left: Student protest art, Right: Official sketch for ‘68 Olympics

Lance Wyman’s identity system for the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico City was also marked by protest. In the late 60’s, after a summer of increasingly large demonstrations protesting the Mexican government and the Olympics, the Mexican Armed Forces opened fire on unarmed civilians, in the Tlatelolco Massacre, which killed an estimated hundreds of protestors.

Student Protest Art - Olympics 1968

As Lance Wyman recalls “The students subverted our identity in such powerful ways. They used the ’68 logo freely and attached it to revolutionary images, such as an image of a policeman as a guerilla. They riffed off of our silhouette system, specifically my postage-stamp designs, switching images of athletes for images of protestors being beaten by the police. And they even replaced our sporting event symbols with images of grenades, gas masks, bayonets, boots, and bombs.”

Chinese communities are currently protesting the 2022 Winter Olympics scheduled for Beijing, raising concern that the International Olympic Committee supports authoritarian regimes.

sources: Waitsel

sources: Daily Sabah // Twitter


I’m excited for the next generation of designers to face and challenge some of the hard truths of this global event. Designers holding new perspectives and untold histories will shape future global design and politics toward a more just world

Further Reading:

Designing ‘96, Atlanta History Center

The best and (the worst) designs of the Tokyo Olympics, Fast Co.

Design Focus: The Olympic Games

This Graphic Artist’s Olympic Pictograms Changed Urban Design Forever, Smithsonian

Resultant Host: Denver and the 1976 Winter Olympic Games, Denver Public Library

Olympic Games 1912 Stockholm, Olympic Museum


Brief History of Denver, Colorado XII Winter Olympic Games 1976, Logo Smith

1912 V Olympiad - Stockholm, Alphabetilately

Olympic Protest, V&A

2008 Protests, Waitsel

Remembering Denver's Disastrous 1976 Olympic Bid, Sports Illustrated

Radiant Discord: Lance Wyman on the ’68 Olympic Design and the Tlatelolco Massacre, The Walker Art Center

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