The candidates

The right to host each Olympic Games is a hard fought contest between rival candidate cities but is the design of the bid logos taken seriously enough?

Any country can apply to be considered as a potential candidate for hosting an Olympic Games. Applicant city bids are considered by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a handful of these are then selected to vie for the privilege of hosting that particular Games as candidate cities. When London secured the 2012 Olympics back in 2005 it was a hard fought pitch against fellow candidate cities Madrid, Moscow, New York and Paris.

Ultimately each city’s committee has to make its case to the IOC for why it is best placed to host a Games whilst also rallying support from the city’s residents and businesses. As with any marketing campaign, it should ideally be spearheaded by coherent, recognisable and popular design, a symbol or logo that at once signifies both the international and multicultural allure of the Olympic Games, and which also references and celebrates the bidding city.

Looking through the logos of bidding city campaigns past and current, there are various themes that are revisited time and time again: there are logos that look like flowers (Seville 2004, Osaka 2008, Tokyo 2020), flames (Melbourne 1996, Manchester 2000, Madrid 2012), athletes or animals in motion (Milan 2000, Buenos Aires 2004, Lille 2004, Beijing 2008), and allusions to particular architectural or geographical features or monuments (Beijing 2000, Sydney 2000, Moscow 2012, New York 2012).

Logo acquisition

So how does a bid committee go about acquiring a graphic device capable of encapsulating multiple ideas and aspirations? You might think that a graphic design or branding agency would be consulted, yet remarkably in recent years competitions encouraging design students to create a logo seem to be the method of choice. The emblem for Tokyo’s 2020 games bid, for example, was designed by Japanese student Ai Shimamine and selected from a host of other competition entries elicited from students of Tokyo universities. It features Japan’s most celebrated flower, the cherry blossom, and it works on a number of symbolic levels according to Tokyo 2020 communications director, Masa Takaya: “The logo is centred around the cherry blossom which symbolises friendship and peace,” he maintains, “so incorporating cherry blossoms in the logo reflects the values they share with the Olympic movement and the people of Japan.”

Takaya also explains that Shimamine’s winning logo was refined by a professional graphic designer and that the Olympic colour of black was substituted for a particular hue of purple associated with Tokyo’s past when the city was called Edo.

“We believe in the power of sport and its ability to inspire dreams, hopes, goals and positive changes in our lives,” adds Takaya, “and we believe our emblem represents exactly what we want to communicate until the host city selection.”

It would seem that Tokyo 2020 has managed to acquire an emblem that functions on all the levels required. However, is running a competition to create a logo really the best way forward for a bid city?

Madrid is also a 2020 Games candidate city and it too ran a competition to create a logo. Twenty two year-old student Luis Peiret won with a design that was then ‘professionalised’ by Spanish design agency Tapsa but subsequently widely slated as a terrible piece of communication, not least because it appears to say 20020 rather than 2020.

Perhaps agency Tapsa should be blamed for this lack of clarity rather than the competition’s winner. Originally, Peiret’s proposed logo sported ‘m20’ on a number of colourful blocks but Tapsa changed the shape of the five square-edged blocks to echo the shape of Madrid’s Alcalá gate with its five arches. Then it unceremoniously lopped off the bottom of the lettering so it’s far harder to understand that it says ‘m20’. It was also Tapsa’s choice of typeface that makes the dot over the lowercase ‘i’ of Madrid look confusingly like an accent.

Even before Tapsa tampered with it, it’s debatable whether Peiret’s design answered the competition brief, or even addressed it. The bid committee’s competition rules defined the ideas the logo had to represent: “Spanish passion for sports, a better future provided by the social legacy and the infrastructures remaining after the Games … and the perception of the 2020 Olympics as a cornerstone in the strategy towards economic recovery”. Do the characters ‘m20’ on a background of five coloured blocks really say any of those things?

It seems remarkable that none of the three 2020 hopefuls (Istanbul hasn’t announced the winner of its logo competition yet) took a leaf out of London’s 2012 bid book and employed a professional graphic designer (in London’s case, Kino Design) to create its bid logo. Or from Chicago’s. Its 2016 applicant city bid logo, designed by VSA Partners, received rare praise from the world’s design community as well as from Chicago residents. In form it resembled an Olympic torch with a blue-to-green gradient handle representing Lake Michigan and the city’s parks, with the flame representing Chicago’s architectural skyline and also its recovery from the fire of 1871.

“We crafted a whole rationale around a whole host of things,” recalls VSA Partners’ Jamie Koval of the agency’s approach, “what connotes the Olympic movement, what iconography says Olympics without actually saying Olympics. Colour obviously becomes a huge part of the visual expression when you’re an applicant city too. Then we did the same thing for Chicago – how do we mark this momentous, historic moment, what are the icons of the future of the city, what suggests and says Chicago? We kind of painted the landscape that way so we could understand not only what the objectives are but what we had to draw on.”

However, once Chicago was selected as a candidate city for 2016, VSA had to create a new logo, as a symbol that references anything Olympic (such as the torch) can’t be used as it might be deemed to give one city’s campaign an unfair advantage. However, because VSA Partners had devised a graphic system that supported the logo and a clear rationale behind its symbology, it wasn’t, they say, a problem.

“We knew that if Chicago made it to the next round there could be issues with the beacon marque,” explains Koval. “We originally showed the bid committee maybe seven different treatments, not only for the logo, but for a supporting visual system too, and everyone just fell in love with the beacon. It had a lot of texture and meaning so the decision was made to go with it. Also, San Francisco had lost to London in the 2012 application, and with LA also mounting a strong bid for 2016 as well, Chicago felt like they really needed to go for it, so we pressed on knowing full well that it may need to be modified.”

Once Chicago was a confirmed candidate city the logo did indeed need to be tweaked. The colours and rationale remained the same but the form changed to incorporate a six-pointed white star in the centre.

The star references the Chicago City flag, which features four stars, explains VSA’s Dana Arnett who also worked on the project. “They represent the four most significant events that have happened in Chicago to-date. The new star was to represent the fifth historic event that the city would be known for, the 2016 Games. So there was a strategic underpinning to the thinking and a subtle familiarity with that icon that people have come to know with the stars on the flag.”

If anything, this new logo made even more sense for Chicago – it even prompted talk of adding a fifth star permanently to the Chicago city flag if the Olympics came to town.

Had Chicago won its 2016 bid it would, of course, have had to commission a new logo and graphic system with a different set of requirements, just as Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo will have to when selected to host the 2020 Games. With a bit of luck, they’ll hire professionals.

What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

Buy the issue

The Annual 2018

The Creative Review Annual is one of the most
respected and trusted awards for the creative
industry. We celebrate the best creative work from
the past year, those who create it and commission it.

Enter now


South East London - Competitive


London - £35,000 - £40,000


Birmingham - Salary £30-£35k


Leeds, West Yorkshire - £20,000 - 30,000