Bilerico Report

The time AIDS activists used condoms to hijack the Olympic rings

Inset from an HIV/AIDS poster promoting condom use at the Atlanta Olympics

Inset from an HIV/AIDS poster promoting condom use at the Atlanta Olympics Mark King

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a very touchy organization, most especially when it comes to the Olympic rings. They guard their trademark jealously and litigiously, commonly suing anyone who dares to approximate the iconic rings for their own purposes. Even local street vendors during the Games have been shut down for violating copyright.

Anthony Braswell wasn’t thinking about that when he and a co-worker came up with a dangerous idea. It was 1995, and Atlanta was in the height of Olympic fever as the city prepared to host the 1996 Summer Games.

Braswell served as Director of the Grady Health System Infectious Disease Program (IDP), Atlanta’s new HIV clinic. One day he and his medical director, Dr. Jeff Lennox, were chatting about the enormous HIV education opportunity the Games presented. If only they could garner the attention of the worldwide media that would soon be streaming into the city for a two-week stay.

“A basket of condoms was sitting on the conference table,” Braswell said in an interview. “Jeff took five condoms out and starting arranging them on the table, and joked that we should make the Olympic rings out of them. I remember looking at him and saying, ‘yeah. Play safe.’ And that is how it started.”

At the time, they didn’t burden themselves with whether or not creating such a campaign was legal, or what the response of the mighty IOC might be. Or exactly how it might be done. They just started working.

“We didn’t think about next steps,” said Braswell. “We were just enjoying the simplicity of the message. There was no budget, no money at all for this idea.” That problem solved itself when people began offering free services to design, photograph, print, and distribute a full-color poster of the fledgling idea.

A marketing company in Los Angeles stepped in with a photographer and studio time. “They took great care in matching the color of the condoms to the Olympic ring colors,” said Braswell. “They also learned that the lubricated condoms caused damage to their camera lens, so they had to scrap those and find unlubricated ones.”

When the drafts of the poster arrived from a volunteer marketing company, Braswell couldn’t believe that “our crazy idea came to life. But it was missing something.”

Meeting with others on his clinic staff, the group realized the “Play Safe” message simply would not translate to scores of international Olympic visitors. “To be effective we needed to communicate with many different nationalities, many different cultures,” Braswell recalled, “so we contacted all sorts of international groups to determine how the ‘play safe’ message would translate.”

They added a border to the central image that spells out the “play safe” message in eighteen languages. “The hardest one was Chinese,” said Braswell. “There were no symbols that delivered the message of safe sex, and we wound up saying ‘have good sex.’ But they did not have a symbol for ‘sex,’ either, so in the text we actually had to spell out the word in English.”

A final graphic detail was adding the phone number for the Georgia AIDS Information Line, a number that still operates today. “We didn’t ask their permission,” Braswell said, because he wanted to protect them.

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