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MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

What Do the Olympic Rings Mean?

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

"It represents the five inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colors are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time."

In 1894, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin—a French aristocrat and intellectual who had previously attempted to incorporate more physical education in schools—convened a congress in Paris with the goal of reviving the ancient Olympic Games (an idea Coubertin first introduced at a USFSA meeting in 1889). The congress agreed on proposals for a modern Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee was soon formalized and given the task of planning the 1896 Athens Games.

After the 1912 Stockholm Games—the first Games featuring athletes from all five inhabited parts of the world—a design of five interlocked rings, drawn and colored by hand, appeared at the top of a letter Coubertin sent to a colleague. Coubertin used his ring design as the emblem of the IOC's 20th anniversary celebration in 1914. A year later, it became the official Olympic symbol.

The rings were to be used on flags and signage at the 1916 Games, but those games were canceled because of the ongoing World War. The rings made a belated debut at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

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Coubertin explained his design in 1931:

"A white background, with five interlaced rings in the centre: blue, yellow, black, green and red ... is symbolic; it represents the five inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colors are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time."

Coubertin used a loose interpretation of "continent" that included Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. He never said nor wrote that any specific ring represents a specific continent.

Because the rings were originally designed as a logo for the IOC's 20th anniversary and only later became a symbol of the Olympics, it's also probable, according to historian David Young, that Coubertin originally thought of the rings as symbols of the five Games already successfully staged.

ANCIENT RINGS? 

Popular myth (and an academic article) has it that the rings were inspired by a similar, ancient design found on a stone at Delphi, Greece. This "ancient" design, however, is really just a modern prop.

For the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, Carl Diem, president of the organizing committee, wanted to relay the Olympic Flame from its lighting point in Olympia to the Olympic stadium in Berlin. Diem, it seems, had a flair for theatrics, and included in the relay a stop at Delphi's ancient stadium for a faux-ancient Greek torchbearers' ceremony complete with a faux-ancient, 3-foot-tall stone altar with the modern ring design chiseled into its sides.

After the ceremony, the torch runners went on their way, but no one ever removed the stone from the stadium. Two decades later, British researchers visiting Delphi noticed the ring design on the stone. They concluded that the stone was an ancient altar, and thought the ring design had been used in ancient Greece and now formed "a link between ancient and modern Olympics."

The real story behind the altar was later revealed, and "Carl Diem's Stone" was moved from the stadium and placed near the ticketed entrance to the historic site.

The inspiration for Coubertin's design seems to be a little more modern. Four years before he convened his Olympic congress, he had become president of the French sports-governing body, the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). The Union was formed from the merging of two smaller sporting bodies, and to symbolize this, a logo of two interlocking rings—one red and one blue, on a white background—was created and displayed on the uniforms of USFSA athletes.

"It seems quite obvious," says historian Robert Barney in a 1992 Olympic Revue article, "that Coubertin's affiliation with the USFSA led him to think in terms of interlocked rings or circles when he applied his mind towards conceiving a logo ... indeed, a ring-logo that would symbolize his Olympic Movement's success up to that point in time.... Circles, after all, connote wholeness, the interlocking of them, continuity."

LORD OF THE RINGS

The IOC takes their rings very seriously, and the symbol is subject to very strict usage rules and graphic standards, including:

The area covered by the Olympic symbol (the rings) contained in an Olympic emblem (e.g. the 2008 Games emblem) can't exceed one-third of the total area of the emblem.
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The Olympic symbol contained in an Olympic emblem has to appear in its entirety (no skimping on rings!) and can't be altered in any way.
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The rings can be reproduced in a solid version (for single color reproduction in blue, yellow, black, green, red, white, gray, gold, silver, or bronze) or an interlocking version (interlaced from left to right; and reproduced in any of the aforementioned colors or full color, in which case the blue, black and red rings are on top and the yellow and green are on the bottom).
*
For reproduction on dark backgrounds, the rings must be a monochromatic yellow, white, gray, gold, silver, or bronze; full color on a dark background is not allowed.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?
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Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:


The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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