Postage stamps featuring Olympic themes have been popular ever since French sportsman Pierre de Coubertin revived the games in Athens in 1896. The games, however, have a much longer history, of course. The first recorded Olympic Games took place in the Greek city of Olympia in 776 B.C., and subsequently were held every four years for nearly 12 centuries until the end of the fourth century A.D. The 2004 Olympic Games postage stamp recognized the tradition’s ancient origins.
“The idea was to create a graphic that resembled the Attic vase paintings of Greece,” says stamp artist Lonnie Busch. “After finding as many images of vases as possible, I tried to capture the feel in an updated version,” he explains. The result is a stylized depiction of a Greek runner that resembles a scene from an ancient black-figure vase. A classical design known as a meander or key pattern, which borders the top and bottom of the stamp, helped Busch and art director Richard Sheaff meet an even larger design challenge.
“That challenge,” says Busch, “was to make the image flow across the sheet of stamps.” Sheaff wanted the runner, border, and background to merge into the adjoining stamps on either side, giving the appearance of a footrace when they appeared in horizontal rows on the stamp pane. Red versions of the main figure on either side of the main runner created the desired effect, and the stamp was complete.
Busch says that he wasn’t intimidated by the worldwide interest in the games or the long tradition of Olympic-themed stamps. Instead, he focused on the task at hand: capturing the idea of the Olympics Games in a single piece of art.
“In a way, that gave me freedom and protection,” he says, “leaving the image fresher.” His design honors all modern Olympians while acknowledging the small band of runners whose determination and competitive spirit has resonated for centuries.
The ancient Olympic Games began with a single footrace. What was the name of that footrace?
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36 U.S.C. Sec. 220506. Official Licensed Product of the United States Olympic Committee.