The Olympic symbols and ceremonies / by Susan Brownell

Brownell, Susan

Edited by The Olympic Studies Centre - 2024

Why have the Olympic Games become the premier global ritual, and what does this tell us about global society? Since the founding of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, the skilful control of little more than a handful of symbols and ceremonies has positioned it as a powerful political actor in the world. Tracing the history of the key Olympic symbols (Olympic rings, flag, motto, and anthem) and ceremonies (opening, closing, and medal award ceremonies) reveals Pierre de Coubertin’s skill in designing symbols that connected with the sentiments of the times, and the skill of the IOC in adapting to changing times with ceremonies that followed global trends such as internationalism, demilitarisation, secularisation, democratisation, and commercialisation. Since Coubertin’s time, nations have become ever more interconnected politically, economically, and culturally, while intercultural contact has generated greater awareness of differences of race, language, ethnicity, and religion - differences that have sometimes erupted into conflicts, wars, and even genocide. The Olympic Games express this paradox by combining symbols of world peace and international friendship with symbols of national identity and competition for supremacy, mediating between the opposing sides of the fundamental contradiction of the modern era. The parade of athletes in the opening ceremony most clearly embodies this fundamental contradiction and, in that sense, is the core rite in the Olympic ceremonial repertoire. Nations have used the paradox of Olympic symbolism to facilitate their move from the outside to the inside of the community of nations by hosting Olympic Games, such as Japan, Germany, and China, which re-imagined symbols of national pride (flags, anthems, the military), formerly associated with war, within a framework of peace and international friendship. In order to maintain the Olympic symbolic system, the IOC engages in power struggles with groups that want to hijack the meaning of the symbols, to ensure that ultimately internationalism prevails over nationalism, interconnection over division, and peace over war.

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