RIO DE JANEIRO — For many athletes, the Olympic path is easy to trace: years of training in obscurity; a life-affirming, nerve-wracking competition on the world’s biggest stage; the medal podium for the fastest, strongest, smartest of the bunch; and then, back home, a visit to a tattoo parlor to memorialize the entire affair for eternity.
The iconic Olympic rings are ever-present across Rio de Janeiro this summer, but not just on the flags and signage that wallpapers the city. For many Americans competing here, they’re on ankles, biceps, hips and shoulders. One 2012 Olympian, weightlifter Holley Mangold, returned home and actually got the rings tattooed on the side of her head.
“It’s one of the things you see all the cooler Olympians having,” said archer Brady Ellison, who got tattoos following both the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games. “. . . I feel like the Olympic rings is the one tattoo that only we can get.”
The 554-member U.S. Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro includes 189 athletes who’ve previously competed in a Summer Games. That means dozens of tattoos will be on display across a variety of events. Wrestler Jordan Burroughs decorated his left biceps with the iconic logo draped in an U.S. flag. Michael Phelps has the rings on his right hip, often visible peeking out of his swimsuit. Fellow swimmer Ryan Lochte put his inside his right biceps. Sprinter Justin Gatlin has the rings just above his right collar bone. Two weeks after winning four gold medals at the London Games, Missy Franklin returned home and got the rings etched high on her right thigh, usually covered during competition.
Many plan the tattoo long before the competition. Others can’t resist the pull. The ink is a calling card for an exclusive club with a membership that never expires. Diver Kristian Ipsen, 23, waited two weeks after the London Games to visit the parlor and add the rings to his left forearm.
“I was sitting at home, and I was bored,” he said, “and I was like, ‘I want the tattoo.’ ”
Tattoos can serve as reminders about life’s events, loved ones, lessons, inspirations and accomplishments. For athletes, the Olympics encompasses all of these things. Archer Jake Kaminski, 27, visited a parlor in Gainesville, Fla., and tried to articulate his vision.
“I’m not an artist; I’m not a designer,” he said. “All I knew is I obviously wanted the rings, and I wanted them to be a part of me.”
The result: On the inside of right arm, an arrow appears to cut through and pull back his skin, revealing the Olympics rings underneath.
Of course, because we’re talking about the Olympics, a multi-billion-dollar entity that guards its brand like a lion does a newborn cub, the occasional uproar is inevitable. In May, Josef Craig, a British Paralympic swimmer, was disqualified from a race because his tattoo of the Olympic rings was visible, violating an International Paralympic Committee swimming rule that clearly states, “Body advertisements are not allowed in any way whatsoever (this includes tattoos and symbols).”
Technically, Paralympians compete under a different banner and for a different organization that features a different logo. To Paralympic officials, the Olympic rings were no different than a Nike swoosh. The International Olympic Committee has indicated that it has no plans to ban ink of the rings and has even expressed enthusiasm for athletes’ marking their accomplishments in such an enduring way.
The permanency might scare some from ever sitting in the chair, but for many Olympians, that’s the allure. Most trace the ink lineage back to Chris Jacobs, who won three swimming medals at the 1988 Games. Impressed with a Canadian swimmer who sported ink at the 1984 Olympics, Jacobs returned from Seoul intent on memorializing his own Olympic visit.
“Family and friends see the tattoo as special, unique and something for which we should be proud,” Jacobs said. “The reaction from other Olympians tends to be fairly consistent, most appreciating the idea, with the greatest amount of time spent deciding on the best part of their body to display the work.”
Since Jacobs’s original ink, the simple ring design has evolved for many. While the early Olympic tattoos — popularized especially by the swimmers — featured just the five rings, some of today’s Olympians tend to get more elaborate. Archer McKenzie Brown, for example, has the symbol on her right wrist, though the rings are depicted as circular arrows.
Diver Abby Johnston, who won silver in London, visited NY Ink after returning and got the rings on the right side of her midsection. She was careful not to get too ornate.
“The last Olympics was the 30th of the modern Games, so it was XXX, which I felt wasn’t what I wanted to add to the rings,” said Johnston, 26. “This time, it’s the 31st. Maybe I would add that. I don’t know. I might just leave it as is.”
With 365 first-time Olympians on Team USA, tattoo artists back in the States could soon be busy. Most athletes wait until after the competition to turn body into canvas, careful to select the design and artist who can make certain no one confuses their lifelong pursuit with a skin-deep blunder.
Carlin Isles grew up as a track athlete but comes to these Rio Games as a member of the U.S. men’s rugby team. He has been envisioning his tattoo since at least 2004, watching ink-stained sprinter Maurice Greene race in Athens.
“Since I was younger, I always planned to do it,” he said.
Ellison, the 27-year-old archer who’s competing in his third Olympics, also felt his tattoo was inevitable, an initiation of sorts. So he returned home from the Beijing Games and walked into a San Diego tattoo parlor, hoping to make a statement. His rings take up the sizeable real estate on his right forearm, visible whenever he raises his bow and pulls back the string. Four years later, after the 2012 Games, he added the word “London,” shaped into an arrow, and after leaving Rio de Janeiro, the ink will crawl even higher up arm.
He hopes to make as many teams as possible to create an entire Olympics-themed tattoo sleeve on his right arm.
“That’s the goal anyway,” he said.
Staff writer Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.