A thousand words in one same language

As the Olympic and Paralympic Games are an international event that attract various people among the world, difficulty in communication and language barriers are a recurrent phenomenon. Sports illustrations and graphic images for providing general information have been used in early modern Games such as 1912 in Stockholm, 1924 in Paris and 1948 in London. However, they were quite complex, kept on a small scale and not universally recognised. 

Careful about the sense of hospitality and anticipating the influx of non-Japanese speaking visitors, it was in the run-up to Tōkyō 1964 that the Olympic pictograms officially made their debut. In the arise from a need to communicate visually to an increasingly international group of athletes and spectators, designer Yamashita Yoshiro and art critic Katsumi Masaru led a team of specialists who worked together on the development of icons reduced in shape and size to the minimum needed for understanding each message. The set included 20 figures for the different sports, as well as 39 additional icons for various kinds of information. They were used on venue maps and programmes, but also on building walls and inside airports and train stations. As the pictograms have proved successful at the Tōkyō 1964 Games, subsequent hosts followed the Japanese example. Furthermore, design critics have stated that these Olympic pictograms have permanently changed the idea of graphic design and consider it as one of the earliest steps on the way to replace words with images on the global stage. Indeed, the concept of using icons in the communication around everyday facilities and services spread widely, and so, for example, the now well-known toilet signage emerged in the context of 1964.

Olympic pictograms from the 1960s to the 1980s looked similar and were primarily supposed to be informative. Progressively, they then received an individual design. Thus, Lillehammer 1994 marked a turning point by developing a very unique type of icon, inspired by Norwegian rock paintings that are estimated several thousand years old. Creators wished thereby to incorporate the country’s history, and additionally made a commercial campaign out of it, leading to the production of t-shirts and various objects for sale. 

With almost all of the 128 million existing native Japanese speakers living on the archipelago, the ninth most practiced language in the world stands out with its strong geographical concentration. Although reaching a record of more than 31 million tourists who visited the Land of the Rising Sun last year, the country’s language remains rather isolated. Compared to 1964, much information in English and other foreign languages is available today. Nevertheless, communication is still seen as a difficulty in the context of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the use of symbols seems to remain an efficient solution in the orientation of international visitors. 

Designed by a team led by Hiromura Masaaki over an almost 2-year period, the Tōkyō 2020 official sport pictograms of the Olympic Games got introduced on 12 March 2019. There are two sets (unframed and framed) of 50 designs representing the 33 sports that will feature next summer (some sports count individual pictograms per discipline). The unframed version will be used on posters, tickets and licensed products whereas the framed type will be figuring on maps, signage at competition venues, guidebooks and websites. The Paralympic pictograms were unveiled one month later, on 13 April 2019. They count a total of 23 designs for the 22 Paralympic sports (two different ones are used to express each of the cycling disciplines). 

The Tōkyō 2020 sport figures were created with the idea to combine the heritage of the past Games with innovation. The 1964 pictograms consisted of straight lines and precise circles. The 2020 version aims to add the vibrancy and athlete’s movements as a new dimension. The design has been developed in dialogue with various specialists and athletes who shared their perception and knowledge. However, when looking at the frozen images, this intention seems hard to discern and the mentioned vibrancy and motion are difficult to seize.

In the preparation of this report, I traced the 20 corresponding pictograms of the 1964 and 2020 Games on translucent paper. The immediate comparison of the pencil’s flow in my hand made me experience the motion in the figures. It showed me the refinement of each pictogram and made me understand the subtility of the new design. 

The following photograph shows the 20 pictograms used in both, the 1964 (left) and the 2020 (right) Games. Please note that the Olympic and Paralympic Games have not only grown in size but today also embrace a wider range of sports. Tōkyō 2020 therefore includes an additional 30 Olympic pictograms that I did not draw. As there were no Paralympic pictograms developed for 1964, the ones of 2020 do not figure in the following image.


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