Tracing 120 years of summer Olympic Games poster design

Throughout the history of the modern Olympic Games, designs and posters have been used to symbolise the Olympic movement, host city and country and sporting ideals. Let’s look at some examples from the archives. 

Athens 1896

There was no poster used at the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, but the cover of the Olympic Games program was used. The inscription ‘776-1896’, the horseshoe-shaped sStadium, the Acropolis, the Koris – the personification of the Goddess Athena – ready to offer the crown of victory, symbolise the connection between the ancient Games and those of the modern age.

Stockholm 1912

The Stockholm Games were the fifth occurrence of the modern Olympic Games. One of the most important advertising measures taken was the adoption of an official Olympic poster. 

Known as the ‘Swedish Masterpiece’, the 1912 Olympics were the best organised and most efficiently-run Games to that date. 

The Swedish Olympic Committee chose a design by Olle Hjortzberg, a member of the Royal Academy, a multi-talented artist best known for his Christian art. With strong influences from Art Nouveau, the poster depicts a naked athlete in the center, in a classic Greek Olympic pose, raising the Swedish flag while behind him other athletes raise flags of their countries, representing nations moving towards the common goal of the Olympic Games.

The central figure’s nakedness reflected the Ancient Olympics when athletes were competing naked, but was criticised so Hjortzberg covered the athlete with decorative ribbons in Art Nouveau style.

The poster was printed in 15 different languages ​​and sent around the world to promote the Games.

Berlin 1936

The 1936 Olympics were held in a tense, politically-charged atmosphere. The Nazi Party had risen to power in 1933 and its racist policies led to international debate about a boycott of the Games. 

Fearing a mass boycott, the International Olympic Committee pressured the German government and received assurances that the Games would not be used to promote Nazi ideology. Adolf Hitler’s government, however, routinely failed to deliver on such promises. 

Pamphlets and speeches about the racial superiority were held. The Reich Sports Field, a newly constructed sports complex that covered 325 acres and included four stadiums, was draped in Nazi banners and symbols. Nonetheless, the attraction of a spirited sports competition was too great and, in the end, 49 countries chose to attend the Olympic Games in Berlin.

The Games were televised for the first time, transmitted by closed circuit to specially equipped theatres in Berlin. The 1936 Games also introduced the torch relay by which the Olympic flame is transported from Greece.

The poster – by artist Franz Würbel – aimed to do three things: show the importance of the Olympic Games, call attention to Berlin as the host city and publicise the Games in an effective and internationally understandable manner. 

The poster depicted the Brandenburg Gate as a landmark of the host city, in front of which stands a monumental figure of a crowned winner, in a classical realism style which was popular with Hitler. The five rings in their original colors blue, yellow, black, green and red are depicted on the background and at the bottom the dates of the Games. 

Mexico 1968

Graphic art was the communications vehicle for the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, the first time a Latin American country hosted the Games.

The poster was designed by Lance Wyman and Peter Murdoch.

Pedro Ramirez Vázquez, an architect and humanist, was president of the organising committee of the Mexico City Olympic. He led a communication campaign with the idea of ​​the Games leaving a legacy of peace where young people will focus on what unites us and not on what separates us, in the spirit of the Ancient Olympic Games. 

In the tumultuous atmosphere of 1968 – with student protests and clashes with police in Mexico and around the world and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States – Ramirez Vázquez fought to have the iconic moment that shocked the world included in the Olympiad official video, when the two black athletes, Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) rose their black-gloved fists in solidarity with the anti-racism movement in the United States.

Munich 1972

A wide selection of posters for various posters was developed for the Olympic Games in Munich.

Numerous posters were produced for special occasions (pre-Olympic-exhibitions, the torch relay, etc.) in addition to those for sports and cultural events. 

There were also posters with photos or just lettering; diagrams, maps or charts and tables were also given the character of posters. The sports and cultural posters formed the focal point, using different methods within the limits of the elements determining the image of the Games.

The twenty-one sports posters were intended to be intelligible in a majority of international cultures and appeal to most people throughout the whole world.

The Munich posters intensified the use of photography as a way to promote the Olympic Games, but expressed in form and colour over in addition to the Olympic logo. Great care was taken to select typical athletic situations for the photographs.

Each poster had a left-to-right motion, with horizontal lines. Another important feature of every sports poster is its form consisting of cut outs. Thus almost every figure and other elements were bled into the page, suggesting action.

Thus by focusing on typical aspects of each sport, the posters became symbols which could be comprehended immediately by each viewer. The use of various posters together also increased the effect of the individual poster. Colours and signal effects mutually complemented each other.

London 2012

Rarely has an Olympic logo provoked as much debate and controversy as that of the 2012 London Olympics. Designed by creative company Wolff Olins, the London Olympic Committee named the logo a symbol for ‘Everyone’s Olympics’.

The design of the logo rejects traditional typography, preferring an abstract form of 2012.

Critics argued that it seemed to have been adapted for a younger audience, seeking inspiration from the graffiti language – a style that excludes older people. 

For the Olympic posters, 12 British artists were invited to design their own version of a poster for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, expressing what the spirit of the Games means to them. The artists were: Tracey Emin, Martin Creed, Rachel Whiteread, Chris Ofili, Gary Hume, Anthea Hamilton, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Fiona Banner, Michael Craig-Martin, Sarah Morris and Bob and Roberta Smith.

EXPLORE MORE: Gallery of Olympic Games posters and graphics

By Elena Lagoudi, National Documentation Center/ EKT

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

Feature image: Athens Panathenaic Stadium, acediscovery via Europeana Sport, CC BY-SA

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