Victoria & Albert Museum’s Survey of Olympics Posters Explores the Games as Nation-Branding

Official poster for the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Summer Games (detail)
(Martha Van Kuyck and Walter Van der Ven & Co.
 © Courtesy IOC / Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

These days, we have become accustomed to the Olympics as exercises in nation branding as host countries take every opportunity to strut their stuff with avant-garde sports architecture, over-the-top opening ceremonies, and iconic logos printed onto innumerable posters. But the first images of the Olympics looked more like advertisements for down-country wrestling matches than international competitions for bragging rights, demonstrates Margaret Timmers’s new book “A Century of Olympics Posters,” published by the Victoria & Albert Museum in conjunction with their exhibition “A Call to the Games: Olympic Posters” (currently on view at the National Sports Museum in Melbourne).

Case in point: The 1895 print for the 45th annual meeting of the Wenlock Olympian Society, an event pioneered by English surgeon William Penny Brookes in honor of the original Greek Olympiads. The poster features the names of 18 competitors, three judges, four referees, and an announcement for a “First-Class Brass Band… and Dancing” at 3 p.m.

Such local gatherings were the predecessor to the revival of the games in 1896, with the first modern Olympics held in Athens. That poster, courtesy of S.P. Lampros, sports the classical influences that have stayed a hallmark of Olympics branding to the present day: towering Ionic columns, a narrative frieze at top, and a figure holding the prototypical laurel leaves.

The majority of the book's posters are dominated by such classicism. See for example the epic 1914 poster celebrating the 20th anniversary of the modern games, in which a wreathed, bare-chested Adonis sporting a flowing red cape extends his arm in a gesture of benediction. Finland’s 1940 edition shows a nude, muscular everyman archetype running in front of a globe. More provocative are the slick graphics of the post-war period; among them Mario Bonilauri’s abstracted gloved torchbearer drawn for Italy's games in 1956.

What of the more recent Games? As Timmers's tome pushes toward the present day, the nation rather than the event comes to the fore, with logos like the minimalist Australian twist on the Aboriginal boomerang for 2000 and the recent Chinese spin on an early pictogram for 2008. Finally, London’s 2012 graphic might herald a new era of branding — it doesn’t look like much of anything.

A Century of Olympic Posters” by Margaret Timmers is published by V&A Publishing and distributed by Abrams. Click on the slide show to see Olympic posters from the book.