Five-ring Circus

A Field Guide to the Tattoos of the Tokyo Games

Which ink will take the podium?

Dressel shirtless and in goggles adjusting his swimming cap (sporting his last name and American flag), with visible tattoos on his arms and left shoulder.
Caeleb Dressel and his tats prepare to compete in a heat for the men’s 100-meter butterfly during the 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, in Tokyo on July 29. Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

One of the great gifts of the Summer Olympics is that the warm weather lets sports fans really get to know the athletes on an epidermal level. Whereas Winter Olympians are generally bundled up from head to toe, Summer Olympians always have ample opportunity to show the world some skin. They have taken full advantage of this opportunity in Tokyo this year, and though the Tokyo Games themselves will soon conclude, the memories of the many tattoos sported by countless Olympic athletes will remain with us forever.

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The Tokyo Games have been a tattoo enthusiast’s paradise. Pretty much every single event has been guaranteed to have at least one competitor flaunting some ink: a set of Olympic rings on the ankle, a pair of wings on the shoulder blades, a scary tree on the bicep. Some Olympians’ tattoos are impressive, or even moving; others are confusing, or plainly regrettable. Over the past two weeks, I have marveled at the full spectrum of Olympic body art. Now, with the Games almost over, it’s time to rank the top contenders and hand out some medals.

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As a public service, I have scoured image libraries and photo galleries hither and yon, and have come away with pictures of 10 memorable Olympic tattoos, which I have ranked from worst to best, as if this were the finals of the 100-meter dash. Which tattooed Olympian will win the gold? Which one will just barely stumble across the finish line? Read on to find out.

10. Achille Polonara, Italy (Basketball)

A tattoo reading "Ball don't lie" over a basketball with @ilpuppuzzo scrawled underneath it
Polonara’s forearm during the men’s Group B basketball match between Italy and Nigeria at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on July 31. (Photo by Aris MESSINIS / AFP) (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images) Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
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Forget about the prosaic “Ball don’t lie” message inscribed on the arm of Italian basketball player Achille Polonara. Look, instead, at the words tattooed right below the basketball, just above Polonara’s elbow. Polonara is known as “Il Pupazzo,” or the puppet; the @ilpupazzo tattoo makes it seem like the basketball player has marked himself with his own social media handle, thus giving new meaning to the term “branding.” But wait! Polonara’s Twitter and Instagram handles are both ilpupazzo33, not merely ilpupazzo. On Twitter, the latter handle belongs to someone called Antonio, who has six followers and does not appear to have ever tweeted. On Instagram, ilpupazzo belongs to Francesco, who has never actually posted anything or followed anyone. In true Italian fashion, this tattoo is very confusing. Polonara finishes in 10th place.

9. Frazer Clarke, Great Britain (Boxing)

The tattoo on an arm showing three Muhammad Alis and reading "The Champ Is Here" at the top, torso in a singlet.
Clarke’s arm during the men’s super heavy (+91kg), at Kokugikan Arena on July 29, in Tokyo. Luis Robayo/Pool/Getty Images
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It would have been nervy enough for British boxer Frazer Clarke to get one picture of Muhammad Ali tattooed on his left arm. Given that Ali is perhaps the best boxer in history, and Clarke is assuredly not, an Ali arm tattoo would sort of cry out for snarky, unflattering comparisons between the two fighters. But Clarke, God bless him, tripled down on his inky homage and had a full triptych of Ali images tattooed on his arm: one of the boxer fighting Joe Frazier, one of Ali playing Monopoly, and a big close-up portrait alongside the words “The Champ Is Here.” Clarke’s explanation of how and why he got the tattoos is charming—  “I went and got a tattoo one day, and it was sort of ‘What do you want?’ ‘I don’t know.’ Seen a picture of Muhammad Ali. … Put him on my arm, then.” For what it’s worth, Clarke performed quite well in Tokyo, taking home the bronze medal in the super-heavyweight class. Alas, he only ends up in ninth place here.

8. Liam Broady, Great Britain (Tennis)

A man in Adidas wristband and holding a purple tennis-racket handle in his left hand lifts up his Adidas shirt, revealing the Achilles-in-helmet tattoo
Broady’s tattoo of Achilles on his torso, as he changes shirts during his men’s singles first round match against Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina at Ariake Tennis Park on July 25, in Tokyo. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Liam Broady shouldn’t have even been in Tokyo. The British tennis player is currently ranked 143rd in the world, which is a tremendous ranking relative to Joe Backhand down at the rec center, but a fairly low ranking when compared against other professional tennis players. Nevertheless, a spate of unexpected withdrawals gave Broady the opportunity to compete at the Tokyo Games, and he rose to the occasion, upsetting 12th-ranked Hubert Hurkacz of Poland and advancing to the third round of the Olympic tennis competition. Even more impressive than his on-court performance, though, is his massive side tattoo of the Greek warrior Achilles, which Broady flashed while changing his shirt during the first round. This is a good tattoo, but ultimately only an eighth-place tattoo, both because of its sort-of-secret location and also because it is sort of an insult to the man who slew Hector to force him to spend his days staring at Liam Broady’s belly button.

7. Elaine Thompson-Herah, Jamaica (Track and Field)

Thompson-Herah sticks her tongue out and smiles, holding a large Jamaican flag behind her, in her jersey and revealing tattoos on both arms
Thompson-Herah celebrates after winning the women’s 100-meter final and setting a new Olympic record, at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 31. Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images
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Not only is Elaine Thompson-Herah a four-time Olympic gold medalist after repeating as champion in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes in Tokyo, she also sports a pretty nice set of tattoos. I’ll call your attention to the one on her left arm, which, among other things, features an inspirational message reading: “Nothing is impossible. Even the word impossible says ‘I’m Possible.’ ” While that saying might seem trite if you saw it on a motivational poster in an office break room, it takes on added meaning and sincerity when emblazoned on the arm of one of the fastest women in the world. Seventh place.

6. Marcin Lewandowski, Poland (Track and Field)

A man lifts his shirt over his head revealing extensive tattoos on his chest and abdomen, including a large bird on his chest and ample text on his stomach.
Lewandowski after competing in the men’s 1,500-meter heats at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Tuesday. Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images
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Polish runner Marcin Lewandowski had a rough time at the Tokyo Games. He fell down in the second heat of the 1,500-meter race, but was nevertheless advanced to the semifinals by the officials. Sadly, he suffered an injury during the last lap of that semifinals and didn’t finish the race. For most of us, this photo of Lewandowski’s tattooed chest will be the enduring takeaway of his time at the Tokyo Games. There’s a large bird of some sort perched between his pecs, followed by some military iconography, followed by what appears to be a full poem above and on his abdomen. The jagged red lettering peeking above his crotch, meanwhile, is reminiscent of a warning label. There’s enough going on here to make the tattoo a memorable one, but a bit too much going on to make it medal-worthy. Sixth place.

5. Pamela Ware, Canada (Diving)

The back of a female diver in her competitive bathing suit, stretching her arms out to the sides, a tattoo visible between her shoulder blades of two eyes, below which are inked the back of a hand and a mouth inside the base of that hand
Ware in the women’s 3-meter springboard semifinal at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on July 31. Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
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I like this tattoo that Canadian diver Pamela Ware wears between her shoulder blades. It reminds me of a surrealist painting, or a rebus puzzle. It’s simple yet striking; it clearly means something to her, even as the meaning is not immediately clear to you, the casual diving fan. As is sort of becoming a theme here, though, the tattoo is much more memorable than Ware’s Olympics performance this year. Though the Canadian was a real medal contender in Tokyo, she scored a rare 0.0 during the 3-meter springboard dive semifinals when she got messed up with her footwork on the board and ended up just jumping into the water feet-first.

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Here’s hoping she returns in 2024 with some better luck and some more ink. Fifth place.

4. Matthew Anderson, United States (Volleyball)

Anderson's left arm with a large twisted leafless tree tattoo on it, in tank uniform for indoor volleyball
Anderson in the men’s Pool B volleyball match between USA and Tunisia at Ariake Arena in Tokyo on July 28. Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images
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At first glance, the tattoo on the left arm of U.S. volleyball player Matt Anderson looks like your run-of-the-mill haunted tree. But the tree actually represents Anderson’s family tree, which makes this tattoo more than just the sort of thing you’d get and regret after a drunken Halloween misadventure. “All my aunts, uncles, cousins, relatives across the board. We’re a big twisted tree. We’re vast and we’re everywhere, and I can always bring them with me,” Anderson said in 2016. That’s sort of sweet. This tree isn’t a scary tree, it’s a tree of life. Anderson finishes just off the podium in fourth place.

3. Caeleb Dressel, United States (Swimming)

Dressel in goggles and swim cap, his left arm covered in the eagle, bear, oranges, and flag tattoo described below, a small Olympics rings tattoo visible as well on his right forearm
Dressel prepares to compete in the men’s 100-meter freestyle final at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 29, in Tokyo, Tom Pennington/Getty Images
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Now we’re finally getting to this year’s tattoo medalists! Swimmer Caeleb Dressel is perhaps this year’s most prominent inked American Olympian. Over the course of the first week of the Tokyo Games, Dressel and the large tattoo covering his left arm and shoulder got lots of airplay on NBC. According to Dressel himself, the tattoo—which incorporates various images including an eagle, the American flag, a black bear, an alligator, and some orange blossoms—was inspired by his home state of Florida.

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There’s a lot going on with Dressel’s sleeve, but it all somehow comes together. Dressel won five gold medals for Team USA in Tokyo. It’s good to have at least one Florida Man of whom the entire nation can be proud. Bronze medal for Caeleb Dressel’s Florida-themed tattoo.

2. Sarah Kohler, Germany (Swimming)

Kohler smiling with her arms raised in her swimsuit, a large tattoo described below visible on her right arm
Kohler after winning bronze in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle final at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 28, in Tokyo. Tom Pennington/Getty Images
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While this isn’t the best shot of women’s 1,500-meter bronze medalist Sarah Kohler’s right arm tattoo, trust me when I say that the tattoo is a good one. It features a fun little hourglass wrapped with some flowers and a banner containing the German saying “Jeder Ist Seines Glueckes Schmied,” which translates to “You make your own luck,” or, more poetically, to “Everyone is the blacksmith of their own happiness.” As German sayings go, that’s an unusually inspirational one; as sayings tattooed on the arms of bronze-medal Olympic swimmers go, it’s a pretty appropriate one. Plus, the fun little hourglass has a fun little clock face on the top. This tattoo is much better than the myriad other Olympic tattoos that seek to inspire by depicting mythic or intimidating animals. A silver medal for Sarah Kohler.

1. Marios Georgiou, Cyprus (Artistic Gymnastics)

The back of Georgiou's neck showing the rings tattoo described below, the gymnast wearing a dynamic unitard with diagonal intersecting shapes and colors
Georgiou during men’s podium training ahead of the Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 21, in Tokyo. Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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The most popular athlete tattoo at the Tokyo Games, by far, is a simple set of Olympic rings. I’ve seen athletes wearing them on every conceivable body part, more or less. It’s sort of like a tribal identifying mark. If it were up to me, tattooists would have to require conclusive proof of Olympics participation before administering these particular tattoos. A non-Olympian flashing a set of rings on his bicep is basically a case of stolen valor.

Some Olympic rings tattoos are more impressive than others, though. I’ve seen massive, three-dimensional sets of rings that look for all the world like you could grab them off the athlete’s skin and wear them like an odd set of handcuffs. I’ve also seen rings like the ones worn by Marios Georgiou of Cyprus, whose neck tattoo looks like it was done in a prison shower. The only way you would know that these are supposed to be Olympic rings is because Georgiou, a gymnast, was competing in the Olympics. There are gaps in the rings, as if someone took bites out of them; they are rendered monochromatically; and there are little ink blobs adjoining the rings on the left-hand side, as if the rings themselves are crying.

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So why, you ask, am I naming this tattoo as this year’s gold medal winner? Because of what I think it symbolizes. Georgiou is an excellent athlete with an inspirational life story. Bullied at school for his Filipino ancestry and the fact that he was a gymnast, Georgiou has dealt with family upheaval and housing instability, and he briefly considered quitting gymnastics in order to get a job, because he and his family needed the money. Then, his father died. In an interview, Georgiou said that his training has historically helped him forget about the hardships of his life outside of the gym: “I know that when I go to a practice that I will forget about everything else that might be going on. I can’t think of my life without it.”

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Georgiou was not a medal contender this year, and he likely never will be. His chances for the Olympic podium will always be as faint as the fading ink on the tattoo that adorns the back of his neck. But he is an Olympian nevertheless, and those humble, homemade-looking rings symbolize that status and all that he went through to get there. “It’s a very hard road. People only see the success, but to get to that success each athlete has to fight, to hurt and to make sacrifices,” Georgiou said. It seems like no one ever gave Georgiou much of a chance in life, but he’s made it to two Olympic Games nevertheless. Those rings are a testament to the true Olympic spirit. For the first time ever, Cyprus gets the gold.

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