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The iconography of Olympics: A look back

For decades to come, Indians are going to remember the striking image of the athlete Neeraj Chopra clutching the javelin firmly and sprinting on the runway for his last throw that earned him a gold medal in Tokyo Olympics. For a moment, he looked like a fierce Greek statue that came to life. Talking of Olympics and the Greeks, it is fitting to go back in time to know the philosophy of the event, which originated on the land of the western thinkers. That very philosophy will give us the ticket for a quick ride to the icons used in the Olympics events.

What is it like to be an Olympic athlete? If your own country is not hosting the event, you will be invited to a foreign nation and you will undergo rigorous training to participate. At last, the moment arrives, your name is called, and you burst out into the arena, ready to face the challenge and be tested in front of everyone. This ancient event was a matter of great pride and prestige, but the legacy did not continue for long. In the ancient Greek society, shame and failure were ruthlessly brushed away. There were no consolations for losers or rewards for taking part. Despite the prevalence of such idealistic hypocrisy, what inspired athletes and sportspersons to test themselves against others? Greek philosophy says that the burning desire to transcend limits and transform into a champion is ingrained in human nature. This transcendence, as opined by Aristotle, comes with morals and ethics. It is well known that these ancient Greek ideals were what inspired the modern Olympics’ founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He is credited for reviving the Olympics in the late nineteenth century by gathering the world at a place and representing this unity through the famous logo with five rings. He modernized the ideals of Olympics by saying that ‘the important thing in life is not the triumph but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.’

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By the mid-twentieth century, the event of such magnificence was partnered by curious design elements resulting in a visually appealing and comprehensible sign system called pictograms. They are popularly known as icons. The motive of this sign system is to communicate with the audience and participants without employing language. This easy-to-understand system took birth in the Tokyo Olympics, 1964. Later, Lance Wyman, the designer of 1968 Mexico Olympics gave it an artistic punch that remained in the history of the Olympics as one of the most influential design projects. In the Olympics that followed this design turn, pictograms have undergone several iterations inspired by geometric shapes, sports objects, cave paintings and human ergonomics. The most memorable and highly appreciated pictograms appeared in Munich 1968, Lillehammer 1994, Sydney 2000, Salt Lake 2002, Athens 2004 and London 2012.

After nearly six decades, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics took this practice to a higher plane with kinetic pictograms. Though this Olympics’ pictograms are said to be the modernization of those designed in 1964 by the same host city, the overall communication with the rest of the world surprised everyone by not reaching the roots of Japan’s heritage and culture, as in other iconic Olympic pictograms, but fusing manga and anime art practice. Until now, the history and heritage of a host nation, in the Olympics, have been showcased with reference to the ancient and medieval ancestral traces. Occasionally, a completely contemporary path was chosen. This may be the first time that a nation considered pop-culture as an integral part of its history.

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It may seem trivial at first to pay attention to the pictograms and the design techniques of a sports event, but if you reach back to the philosophy of Olympics, it adds up to the whole picture. The Olympics is not about inviting people from all over the world and hosting a majestic event, but about exchange and experiencing cultures. It is also about recognizing, acknowledging and respecting each other. You might have stumbled on the phrase global-village at first but convinced yourselves that it might as well be true because technology is connecting us. If it is true, why do we still feel strange when we are around a foreigner? There are people who seek answers to questions like, even after so many centuries, why couldn’t the human race develop a common language? Most of such questions are answered by pictograms. In terms of language, pictograms have grammar rules, syntax, semantics and history. Despite the availability of a host of media, pictograms are what came to realize the phrase global-village in the Olympics village.
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