July 16, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Likely you are already familiar with the image of Olympics rings, the symbol of the Olympic Games. First introduced in 1913, it has become a ubiquitous representation of sports across continents. Based on a design by Pierre de Coubertin, the rings represent the five participating continents of the time. The colors exhibit at least one color from every participating nation’s flags. In the early 1900s, Pierre de Coubertin wanted to promote the revival of the Olympic Games after more than 1500 years of absence. He also served as the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1896-1925.
Not only did Coubertin promote education and physical fitness, he also pursued ideas of peace. He saw sport playing a major role in the continuity and unity of the globe. Through trial and error, Coubertin fought to create a global Olympic spirit. According to Britannica.com, “Coubertin reconsolidated the Olympic movement by moving its headquarters to Lausanne, Switzerland, and by articulating its ideology of ‘neo-Olympism,’ the pursuit of peace and intercultural communication through international sport.” The multi-colored interlocking rings is a legacy and visual reminder of his efforts.
These rings also remind me of the work of philosopher and professor of Comparative Studies Tom Kasulis. Coubertin used the image of interlocking circles many years before Kasulis’s helpful work Intimacy or Integrity; Philosophy and Cultural Difference, first published in 2002, but they have a similar inspiration. Circles are powerful images in nearly every society and often represent wholeness, unity, perfection, participation, the self, infinity, cycles and seasons, etc.
Kasulis explains that societies are often formed by ideas of intimacy or integrity. By intimacy, he means that people focus on relationships. By integrity, Kasulis means that people structure their worldview based off of the idea of individual selves. In How the World Thinks, Julian Baggini helps distill some of Kasulis’s theories in terms of the global environment. Baggini writes:
“Think of intimacy in terms of overlapping circles. When the world is seen from an intimacy perspective, nothing is entirely distinct from anything else. Self and other, objective and subjective, rational and emotional, mental and physical: these are not discrete opposites but parts of the same whole. For that reason it is best not to even think of them as having solid edges.
“Now think of integrity as non-overlapping circles with solid edges. Everything is clearly distinguished from everything else. Each item does of course stand in relation to other things, but their individual identity and essence is primary.”
In other words, some cultures (mostly Western) view themselves as individuals. Baggini calls this the atomistic self, one that functions as a unit unto themselves. On the other hand, the overlapping circles of intimacy represent a “‘relational self’ … bound in with other selves (and lands, cultures, languages, etc.).”
Since circles are ubiquitous in culture, it is easy to imagine representations of Kasulis’s ideas. For example, Wassily Kandinsky’s “Circles in a Circle” layers many circles one on top of another, interacting with and shading larger and smaller circles, as a visual representation of intimacy. On the other hand, in order to represent integrity, think of Kandinsky’s “Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles.” No circle overlaps any other. Though edges may touch, each circle maintains its own shape, color, and integrity within the confines of the grid.
In my estimation, the Olympic rings function well in both categories. While the rings certainly do interlace and overlap, only minimally so. Therefore, they represent a connection which also allows for an autonomous identity. I love the way this seemingly simple image gracefully combines cultures. It allows for autonomy, but also encourages intimacy.
As the Olympics approach, one year later than expected, I wish the athletes and host country luck, health and happiness. I wish for the 2021 Games to inspire both individuals and society, in the true spirit of the Olympic Games, as represented by the Olympic rings.
To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.