Exploring the design history of the Winter Olympics

From crystalline logos to innovative venues, we take a look at the distinctive design evolution of the winter games.

The Winter Olympics can sometimes seem like the overlooked younger sibling next to its summer counterpart. In total, 91 teams are participating at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics (which begins today). Some 204 nations, principalities and special teams came to Beijing’s 2008 summer games. Viewership is also smaller, as are budgets. But that has allowed the Winter Olympics to tell its own distinct design story, one that is often more off-beat than the blockbuster summer games.

The first winter games took place in 1924 on the slopes of Chamonix, France. The branding for the inaugural games was a relatively simple affair, playing on traditional imagery. The poster, designed by Auguste Matisse (no relation to Henri), showed an eagle above a bobsleigh track. Later that year, Paris played host to the Summer Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) only voted to separate the summer and winter games into different years with 1994’s Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. (Since then, a games occurs every two years).

Source: the IOC

Four years later the visual identity for the games in St. Moritz, Switzerland began to take a more familiar shape, introducing elements (such as place branding) which are still present in contemporary identities. In the official poster, a Swiss flag and a flag bearing the Olympic rings are pictured above the Piz Corvatsch mountain. As the winter games developed into its own entity – 1928 was the first time they took place in a different nation to the summer games – designers appeared to take advantage of the branding opportunities available.

For St. Moritz, Swiss artists such as Emil Cardinaux depicted the wintry landscapes and luxurious resorts as a place of winter wonder and excitement. This was backed up by some remarkable real-life inspiration: equestrian competitions were held on the frozen lake in St. Moritz. Meanwhile, figure skating took place at the area’s hotels, many of which had their own rinks.

Branding at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Source: Shutterstock

The Winter Olympics in logos

Source: the IOC

The first-ever emblem for the Winter Olympics was designed for the 1936 games in Germany, which was opened by then-chancellor Adolf Hitler. 12 years and one world war later, they resumed in St. Moritz – the emblem, which depicted a human faced sun, was evocative of early ornate Olympic emblems.

More imaginative designs came in the second half of the century. Take Franco Rondinelli’s design for the Cortina D’Ampezzo 1956 Winter Olympics, which was the first emblem to make use of the snowflake motif. The emblem showed the snowy peaks of the host city and the Olympic rings within a snowflake roundel – a bronze-brown colour way links the mountains and the framing device.

Source: the IOC

This motif became a popular one, seen in emblems for Sarajevo 1984, Salt Lake City 2002, and Turin 2006. Perhaps the most delicate interpretation is Grenoble’s 1968 emblem, where a snow crystal is placed between a trio of red roses (a traditional sign for the French city). It was created by French designer Roger Excoffon and decked out in the French colours of red, white and blue.

While few of these wintry designs rival favourites of the Summer Olympics – such as Lance Wyman’s radial graphic for Mexico 1968 – some share a visual heritage. Kazumasa Nagai’s emblem for Sapporo 1972 Winter Olympics doesn’t hold the same status as his countryman Kamekura Yusaku’s much-loved design for Tokyo 1964, but it does build on the similar imagery. The hinomaru symbol is reused for the modular emblem, joined by a snow crystal drawn in a complimentary circular style.

From polar bears to pandas

Shuss. Source: the IOC

Grenoble’s 1968 winter games was the origin of one of the more eccentric elements of Olympic branding: the mascot. Shuss, a red cartoon figure on blue skis, was chosen to represent the Games across magnets, key rings and other merchandise. According to the IOC, Aline Lafargue designed the figure “in a hurry” – he only had one night to plan the design. That may account for the mascot’s crude (though memorable) form; he was not treated as an official Olympics mascot. That honour went to Waldi the dachshund, designed for Munich’s tumultuous summer games four years later.

Animals crop up again and again in Winter Olympics mascots. Roni the figure-skating racoon was chosen to represent Lake Placid 1980, while a pair of polar bears – Hidy and Howdy – lent a welcoming hand to Calgary 1988. Bing Dwen Dwen, a panda bear in a full body shell, will make his debut at Beijing 2022. More abstract mascots, like Schneemandl (which translates to snowman) for the Innsbruck 1976 games, show a more playful and eccentric side to the Winter Olympics.

Bing Dwen Dwen. Source: the IOC

Torch design

The Olympic torch for the Innsbruck 1976 Winter Olympics. Source: the IOC

The design of the Olympic torch is often a chance for game organisers to attempt innovation – whether that’s through material use or sculptural techniques. For the winter games, torches have embraced the variety of winter sports on offer. The imaginative torch designed for Innsbruck 1976 features a strip of metal joining the upper and middle section – it is meant to evoke a ski jump run.

Oslo 1952’s torch. Source: the IOC

Designers Geir Grung and Adolf Thoresen’s torch for the Oslo 1952 Winter Olympics meanwhile breaks from the tradition of slender torches with a large flat bowl at its top. This was the first torch relay for the winter games, with a route chosen to signpost the history of skiing. When the winter games returned to Norway for the Lillehammer 1994 competition, the torch design went in the polar opposite direction. The elongated object – from Andre Steenbuch Marandon and Paul Christian Kahrs – was designed to reference Norway’s traditional craft (its birchwood handle) and the country’s modernity (an aluminium blade).

Designed to take off

Big Air Shougang. Source: Shutterstock

The Winter Olympics rightfully evokes natural images of snow-capped mountains and alpine adventure. But they are also often huge feats of engineering and architecture. For Canada’s first set of winter games (Calgary 1988) the world’s first indoor speed skating facility was built at the Olympic Oval. This innovation was made possible by a transparent roof, which allowed natural light to flood in for the athletes.

Ski jumps are particularly fertile ground for designers and architects; Zaha Hadid’s Innsbruck jump is a celebrated addition to the genre, though not built for the Olympics. When viewers tune into Beijing 2022, they’ll be able to see a 60-metre-high ski jump designed by TeamMinus. Big Air Shougang has been created for a relatively recent addition to the Winter Olympics: big air.

In the high-octane event, athletes shoot down the ramp only to be shot up into the air. They are marked on tricks performed mid-air and their landing. Though big air debuted at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, 2022 marks the first time a venue has been purpose built for the sport. The inventive design is fitting for the Winter Olympics, and future-facing in more than one way; it was constructed on the site of a decommissioned steel mill, which closed before the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.

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