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.
*
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.
*
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.

Why Do People Get Ice Cream Headaches?

CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus
CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus

Reader Susann writes in to ask, "What exactly is the cause of brain freeze?"

You may know an ice cream headache by one of its other names: brain freeze, a cold-stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia ("nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion"). But no matter what you call it, it hurts like hell.

Brain freeze is brought on by the speedy consumption of cold beverages or food. According to Dr. Joseph Hulihan—a principal at Paradigm Neuroscience and former associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Temple University Health Sciences Center, ice cream is a very common cause of head pain, with about one third of a randomly selected population succumbing to ice cream headaches.

What Causes That Pain?

As far back as the late 1960s, researchers pinned the blame on the same vascular mechanisms—rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels—that were responsible for the aura and pulsatile pain phases of migraine headaches. When something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your mouth, there is a rapid cooling of the blood vessels there, causing them to constrict. When the blood vessels warm up again, they experience rebound dilation. The dilation is sensed by pain receptors and pain signals are sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. This nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve, the fifth nerve, or just V) is responsible for sensation in the face, so when the pain signals are received, the brain often interprets them as coming from the forehead and we perceive a headache.

With brain freeze, we're perceiving pain in an area of the body that's at a distance from the site of the actual injury or reception of painful stimulus. This is a quirk of the body known as referred pain, and it's the reason people often feel pain in their neck, shoulders, and/or back instead of their chest during a heart attack.

To prevent brain freeze, try the following:

• Slow down. Eating or drinking cold food slowly allows one's mouth to get used to the temperature.

• Hold cold food or drink in the front part of your mouth and allow it to warm up before swallowing.

• Head north. Brain freeze requires a warm ambient temperature to occur, so it's almost impossible for it to happen if you're already cold.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Why Does Humidity Make Us Feel Hotter?

Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images
Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images

With temperatures spiking around the country, we thought it might be a good time to answer some questions about the heat index—and why humidity makes us feel hotter.

Why does humidity make us feel hotter?

To answer that question, we need to talk about getting sweaty.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, one of the ways our bodies cool themselves is by sweating. The sweat then evaporates from our skin, and it carries heat away from the body as it leaves.

Humidity throws a wrench in that system of evaporative cooling, though. As relative humidity increases, the evaporation of sweat from our skin slows down. Instead, the sweat just drips off of us, which leaves us with all of the stinkiness and none of the cooling effect. Thus, when the humidity spikes, our bodies effectively lose a key tool that could normally be used to cool us down.

What's relative about relative humidity?

We all know that humidity refers to the amount of water contained in the air. However, as the air’s temperature changes, so does the amount of water the air can hold. (Air can hold more water vapor as the temperature heats up.) Relative humidity compares the actual humidity to the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at any given temperature.

Whose idea was the heat index?

While the notion of humidity making days feel warmer is painfully apparent to anyone who has ever been outside on a soupy day, our current system owes a big debt to Robert G. Steadman, an academic textile researcher. In a 1979 research paper called, “An Assessment of Sultriness, Parts I and II,” Steadman laid out the basic factors that would affect how hot a person felt under a given set of conditions, and meteorologists soon used his work to derive a simplified formula for calculating heat index.

The formula is long and cumbersome, but luckily it can be transformed into easy-to-read charts. Today your local meteorologist just needs to know the air temperature and the relative humidity, and the chart will tell him or her the rest.

Is the heat index calculation the same for everyone?

Not quite, but it’s close. Steadman’s original research was founded on the idea of a “typical” person who was outdoors under a very precise set of conditions. Specifically, Steadman’s everyman was 5’7” tall, weighed 147 pounds, wore long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and was walking at just over three miles per hour into a slight breeze in the shade. Any deviations from these conditions will affect how the heat/humidity combo feels to a certain person.

What difference does being in the shade make?

Quite a big one. All of the National Weather Service’s charts for calculating the heat index make the reasonable assumption that folks will look for shade when it’s oppressively hot and muggy out. Direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees to the calculated heat index.

How does wind affect how dangerous the heat is?

Normally, when we think of wind on a hot day, we think of a nice, cooling breeze. That’s the normal state of affairs, but when the weather is really, really hot—think high-90s hot—a dry wind actually heats us up. When it’s that hot out, wind actually draws sweat away from our bodies before it can evaporate to help cool us down. Thanks to this effect, what might have been a cool breeze acts more like a convection oven.

When should I start worrying about high heat index readings?

The National Weather Service has a handy four-tiered system to tell you how dire the heat situation is. At the most severe level, when the heat index is over 130, that's classified as "Extreme Danger" and the risk of heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure. Things get less scary as you move down the ladder, but even on "Danger" days, when the heat index ranges from 105 to 130, you probably don’t want to be outside. According to the service, that’s when prolonged exposure and/or physical activity make sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion likely, while heat stroke is possible.

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

This article has been updated for 2019.

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