This installment of our “Oddities” begins differently than usual, like starting with a riddle:
How many colors are there in the Olympic flag?
Easy: there are 5, like the colors of the rings.
Wrong (I was wrong too, trust me): the colors of the flag are six. In fact, the question was not about the colors of the rings (which are indeed five) but about the flag, thus including the background.
It is easy to be misled because the background against which the rings stand out is white, thus a neutral color or even a non-color, and so our brain is automatically led to disregard it.
Why is it important, however, to talk about the colors of the Olympic flag? Because they are not random and have to do with its history and why it is made the way it is.
A bit of history
It was first designed by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, back in 1914. He was materially the one who did it, and he was always the one who chose the colors.
The meaning is very beautiful, especially considering the historical moment in which it was conceived and for what purpose. The world (although it is more correct to say: Europe) was on the brink of World War I, and the Olympic Games were the first major global effort to unite all continents in a sporting challenge of the highest symbolic value.
At the time, the world was more divided than it is today, both politically but especially physically: travel was much more difficult, and the isolation of many states was a consequence of the difficulties of uniting and confronting each other over even purely practical matters. And then there were disagreements, clashes and rivalries that I mention only to make it clear how commendable was the effort of the First Olympic Committee that met in 1913 and made the official flag public the following year. In short, the Olympics had a very important political and social significance: they brought together people of different backgrounds, languages, cultures, and traditions and did so on the common field of the most practiced and secular sports disciplines. It may seem almost obvious now, but more than 100 years ago it was not, not at all.
The meaning of rings (and their colors)
The rings represented and still represent the five continents, in alphabetical order: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. I already know you’re thinking, “Hey, aren’t there 7 continents?” True, there are seven of them, but it is no accident that I mentioned “Americas,” meaning North and South America (i.e., two separate continents). “Okay, but that makes six continents. Who snagged the seventh?” Never fear: the seventh is Antarctica, which is known to be uninhabited and therefore could not send any athletes to the Olympics.
Here, then, are the five circles meant to represent the continents and, even more significantly, their union (or intertwining, whatever) thanks to the Olympic Games.
Right: the colors. Why do the rings have different colors? First, because each color indicates a different continent but also because-again according to De Coubertin’s explanation-the six colors (you don’t get fooled now, do you?) are the colors that appear in every flag in the world. I have not checked and do not rule out that there are ones with many more colors but certainly these six colors appear along with others in every nation’s flag.
One more thing
Since you now know what the rings represent and why they have different colors, you may be curious about which continents the different colors are associated with. Until 1951 (i.e., when the Olympic Committee withdrew the identification of continents with colors) Africa was represented by black, the Americas by red, Europe by green, Oceania by blue, and Asia by yellow. But there are also those who say that Oceania is the green one and Europe is the blue one.
In the end, let us ask: does it really matter what color a continent is? Following De Coubertin’s lesson, no: the important thing was that there were the colors of the whole world and all the continents of the world. United in the name of sports.