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Since 1964, Olympic pictograms have been worth thousands of words

Skit depicting pictograms of all 50 events stole the show at Friday’s Opening Ceremony

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 23: Dancers perform a pictogram of Olympic sports during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by Cameron Spencer)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 23: Dancers perform a pictogram of Olympic sports during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by Cameron Spencer) (2021 Getty Images)

It was the portion of the Opening Ceremony that many were talking about, and no, it wasn’t the lighting of the torch.

Toward the end of Friday’s ceremony to open the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the Japanese unveiled a neat production that paid homage to some Olympic history that they created when the Games were last held in Tokyo in 1964.

To help with communication for what became an increasingly diverse international collection of athletes and audience, Tokyo in 1964 unveiled pictograms to convey the characteristics of each sport at the Olympics.

The pictograms have been created and used by each host city of the Olympics ever since.

In both paying tribute to the history of pictograms and also introducing what this year’s versions would look like, performers acted out the pictograms of all 50 sports at this year’s Olympics.

To view the performance, click or tap here.

Markus Osterwalder, the secretary general of the International Society of Olympic Historians, said to Olympics.com that after little changes to the pictograms in the ’70s and ’80s, there began to be some evolution in the ’90s.

For the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Osterwalder said, for the first time, the pictograms told a story, since they were based on a 4,000-year-old rock carving found in a cave, representing a man on skis.

Osterwalder said this represented Norway’s heritage of winter sports into the graphic design of the pictogram.

In 2000, Sydney used the boomerang as the base for all the pictograms for those Games, while Athens in 2004 used the ancient Olympics as the base for its design of pictograms.

“It’s even better if they also give you a clue as to the flavor of the Games, their heritage, their look and so on,” Osterwalder said in the article. “And if you can use them for merchandising as well -- in Lillehammer, for example, they produced thousands of T-shirts and objects featuring the pictograms, and people loved them. If the pictograms are no good, you won’t sell anything. In such cases, they are perhaps symbols which allow people to understand that the sport is basketball or sailing, but nothing more than that. Moreover, those from the 1960s to the 1980s were purely informative, nothing more. And then that changed. They became part of the heritage, the look of the Games and the commercial program.”

For a look at the original pictograms from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, click or tap here.

To see a list of all the sports and their pictograms for this year’s Olympics, courtesy of Olympics.com, click or tap here.

For a look at pictograms from each Summer Olympics from 1968-2016, click or tap on links below.

Which one is your favorite pictogram? Let us know in the comments below.


About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.