The Evolution of Olympics sports pictograms



Pictograms have been part of the Olympic Games since they were first introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. At that time, the Japanese were faced with the problem of language. People would come to Japan from all over the world. And nobody speaks Japanese. So they had to create a non-verbal system that would work for visitors and participants who have diverse language and cultural backgrounds.

The Tokyo Olympic Games included the design of 20 pictograms for the different sports and a further 39 general information pictograms.

Examples of 1964 Tokyo sports pictograms

Examples of general information pictograms

Since then, pictograms have been created for each Olympic Games. In the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, while paying great respect to the predecessors and inheriting the 1964 Tokyo pictograms by innovating them, its pictograms are not only designed for the goal of transmitting information, but also created to display athletes’ vibrant movement in the most attractive way.

2021 Tokyo Animated Sport Pictograms


2021 Tokyo Olympic Games has just ended last month. Apart from Olympic logos, sports pictograms are paid much attention by people, especially designers. In the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, for the first time in the history of the games, Tokyo has introduced kinetic sports pictograms to subtly represent the characteristics of each sporting event, as well as artistically highlights the dynamism of athletes.

When I started to collect materials of this topic, surprisingly, I found it was Japan that introduced sports pictograms for the first time in Olympic history in 1964. So, I was quite curious about the evolution of sports pictograms from the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games to the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. I want to retrace the history of sports pictograms for the last fifteen Olympics to see the creation of each host country.

Tool & Process

TimelineJS is a friendly tool for beginners to build attractive timelines. It is easy to set up using the template in Google Spreadsheet. And the instruction provided on their website is clear enough for beginners.

Google Spreadsheet Template

First of all, I defined what I need in this Google Spreadsheet template. Year, title, description, and media are necessary for a solid visualization. Then I search some materials from Google to find the introduction and concept of each year’s sports pictograms. I worked smoothly on the materials I mentioned before. When I started to think of the background, I picked the color from sports pictograms of each year at first. But then I changed my mind. Why don’t I use national flags as background since most of these sports pictograms reflect the culture of their countries? So, I found the images of the national flags from Wikipedia and insert them under background cells. It is exciting that the timeline looks more attractive with national flags background.


From the information visualization I made with TimelineJS, it is easy for viewers to match the year, host country, and its sports pictograms. Since the Olympic Games are normally held every four years, the timeline underneath looks regular.

From the timeline, I found that before the 1990s, the design of sports pictograms basically followed the style of 1964 Tokyo. It can be easily found that sports pictograms of 1972 Munich, Germany and 1976 Montreal, Canada are almost the same, which is not so obvious to me when I collected the materials. But from 1992 Barcelona, the designer started to make a break in style. The design became more audacious. In the following Games, designers tried to display more things on the pictograms to show their culture. For example, in 2000 Sydney, the pictogram silhouettes are made up of boomerangs. The use of boomerangs, traditional hunting tools, pays homage to Australian Aboriginal culture.

Examples of 2000 Sydney sports pictograms


TimelineJS is an intelligent tool to create information visualizations easily. When I inserted national flags as background, it adjusted their luminosity automatically. And the texts on it would change color according to the background color.

But there are two things that could be improved. One was the file format of the media. Users are only allowed to add a link in the cell. But the images I found are in a pdf file. I took the screenshot of these images and did not know how to transform them into links. So I asked the professor and he provided a good idea that I could upload them into Dropbox so that I have the link of all these images. Although I finally made it, it would be more intuitive if I can insert an image in the cell.

The second is the option for changing how my timeline looks. If I want to control more style of my timeline, I must create a CSS file to do this. To be honest, I am not good at CSS, so I was limited by its default style. I think the timeline would look better if it allows me to change more styles directly.

Overall, despite the limitation of this tool, the final timeline provides a clear and attractive visualization. Hope it could help the viewers know the evolution of sports pictograms more enjoyably.