Victory bouquets: the story behind sport and its love of flowers

From the medal ceremonies at the Olympic Games to cycling’s stage winner ceremonies and bouquets handed out as athletes cross the finish line, flowers are part and parcel of many sporting celebrations.

Image credit: ©Tokyo 2020

As with so many customs, the history of rewarding sporting victors with victory bouquets is a long one, with flowers actually pre-dating medals as a winner’s reward. Back in Ancient Greece, athletes were awarded olive-leaf wreaths to commemorate victories in the original Olympic Games. Later, during Victorian times, flowers were first presented to victorious field and track athletes on the winners’ podium, a practice that was adopted when the first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896. The Victorians gave each flower a meaning and used the gift of flowers as a form of coded communication known as floriography or the ‘language of flowers’.

Flowers with special meaning

This floriography has remained in use to this day. Fast forward to the last Olympic Games in Tokyo, and organisers say that more than 5,000 bouquets were handed out to medal-winning athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, using flowers that had a very special meaning.

The selection of yellow, green and blue flowers used in the ceremonial bouquets were predominantly grown in three districts of north-east Japan that were devastated by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Bright yellow sunflowers, which dominated the bouquets, were grown in Miyagi, having been planted by parents whose children died in the disaster. Delicate white and purple eustomas and Solomon's seals were grown in Fukushima, under a non-profit initiative set up to try to revive the local economy in the wake of the disaster, while gentians, a small bright blue flower, were grown in Iwate, a coastal area that was devastated by giant waves in the 2011 disaster. To complete the bouquet, green aspidistras, grown in Tokyo, were chosen to represent the host city.

Victory bouquets loved by athletes

Some of the team at Direct2florist have been lucky enough to work behind the scenes at the Commonwealth Games, witnessing first-hand the logistics involved in ensuring thousands of victory bouquets and venue flowers arrive in the right place at the right time. From security screening of every box or bucket of flowers to producing the bouquets in makeshift floral design studios, the task involves hundreds of people, each with their own specific job.

With that in mind, do the victorious medallists enjoy receiving flowers? They certainly do. One victorious member of the English team told us: “I speak for my teammates when we say we all like to receive flowers as part of the medal ceremony. While some enjoy the act of throwing them into the crowd and others simply take them home and display them as a reminder of what they’ve achieved, I take the bouquet and use it to say thank you to someone special. This time it’s my physio. Without her I wouldn’t have made it to the Games at all.”

So, next time you see a sportsperson holding aloft a victory bouquet, take a moment to think about those flowers, what they mean, where they’ve come from and what the medal winner might do with them.

By Austin Clark 15 June 2023