The international Olympic Games, whether winter or summer, are a logistical tour de force. The choice of host city, athlete accommodations, technical support for the press, travel arrangements, security, attendee fees, even mascot (furry robot or singing octopus?) are all decisions that must be made across the globe and across global cultural nuances. One aspect of each Olympics that is just as complex, but often overlooked, however, is the logo design that will represent that year’s games to an international audience.

It’s Not All Fun and Games

In July 2015, the organizing committee of the 2020 Olympics unveiled the new logo for the games, designed by award-winning graphic designer Kenjiro Sano, chosen from more than 100 submissions.  

The design incorporated a T, symbolizing Tokyo, tomorrow and team. Nice. These concepts represented the spirit of the games – to connect the world through sports and shared human achievement, and to build a better future.

The colors black, gold, gray and red were used in the design. The colors were used to create the T shape in whitespace.

The Competition Begins

Here’s where the game gets interesting. Just after the logo was unveiled to the world, Belgian designer Olivier Debie showed his design for the Theater de Lige. He noted that the two designs were similar, and implied that Kenjiro Sano, through “spying” on other worldwide logo designers’ work, had created a bit of a knock-off, even if the logos in question were for entirely different events or organizations.

The Olympic committee dismissed these allegations until Mr. Debie initiated a lawsuit for damages. In September 2015, the organizing committee decided to forgo Sano’s design, fearing negative press and international legal expenses. Debie himself eventually dropped the lawsuit, citing the costs to take on such a large organization through a long legal process.

The New Logo Design

After the controversy of the initial logo, the design bidding process was reopened, garnering almost 15,000 submissions.

In April 2016, a new logo by Asao Tokolo was chosen, using a circular checkered pattern to signify “around the world” unity in the spirit of the games. But soon, another graphic artist developed his own interpretation of the Tokyo games’ logo, which has since been occasionally mistaken as the official logo of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

All of this is now just water under the Kiyosu Bridge. A new official logo is now in play, given the fact that the 2020 Tokyo games have been postponed until 2021 due to the planet-wide COVID-19 pandemic.

The Lessons to Be Learned If You Want to Win the Logo Design Game

This whole backstory about the Tokyo Olympics logo design may seem trivial, petty, and just a story of the irrational hand-wringing of Olympic committee officials and puffed-up graphic designers. But it’s more than all of that. With logo design – an often under- appreciated yet essential part of any organization’s identity – there is always a chance that someone can come along and create a marque that’s dangerously similar to your own. It’s more than a matter of pride or ego; that similarity, whether intentional or not, could confuse potential customers and diminish future business. If that conflicting logo is for a competitor within your own industry, the damage could be exponentially greater.

When deciding on a new logo for your organization, don’t just go on aesthetics. Mix art with the law. Protect yourself by registering your new logo with the patents and trademarks office. The best course of action is to engage an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law. This simple safeguard could save you from legal battles of Olympic proportions.