Sporting greats ... Catherine Flood of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Sporting greats ... Catherine Flood of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo: Angela Wylie

The Olympic Games promotes itself as above politics, yet so often harsh reality intervenes. In a little more than 100 years, two World Wars halted several scheduled events. The Cold War generated at least two tit-for-tat boycotts. Terrorism briefly stopped the Munich Games of 1972 after 11 members of the Israeli team were killed.

Indeed, in a Victoria and Albert Museum touring exhibition of 100 Olympic-related posters, A Call to the Games, history constantly reverberates. What could have been a potentially bland IOC-endorsed love-in and a graphic-design nerd-fest offers the opportunity to view history from several angles.

Sure there is the chance to admire the likes of Franz Wurbel and Ludwig Hohlwein, whose heroic design and illustration promoted the 1936 Berlin Games. But we can also question the early creepy underpinnings of Aryan ''supremacy''. And wonder: Did the English see the winter Olympian's raised arm as a Nazi salute, or just a friendly wave across the alps - ''piste in our time''?

Nazi undertones ... the 1936 Games.

Nazi undertones ... the 1936 Berlin Games.

The Spanish certainly saw through it. As another poster reminds us, the Popular Front of Spain opposed the Olympics under Nazi rule and attempted to host an alternate games in Barcelona. Twenty-two nations registered for the event, with competitors drawn from workers and socialist groups. Rather than just one sculpted ''superman'' representing Berlin's Olympics, three red, black and yellow pictograms clutch an ''Olimpiada Popular'' flag for Barcelona. One large red ring unites these abstracted figures, just as five rings unite nations now. Before the games began, the Spanish Civil War broke out and many athletes took up arms alongside workers against fascism.

By the time the Germans had another chance to host the Games, design was seen as one means to help expunge the memories of Hitler, the war and the Holocaust, according to the V&A's curator of prints, Catherine Flood.

''Instead of the heavy Nazi blacks and reds of the Berlin game posters, the Munich games employed a palette of shimmering silvers, greens and blues,'' she says. ''It had an inspirational message.''

Greek infused ... the 1940 Helsinki Games.

Greek infused ... the 1940 Helsinki Games.

The pre-World War II era focused on one designer and poster for each of the summer and winter Olympics. They tended to fuse nationalism with ancient Greek ideals. For the 1972 Munich games, designer Otl Aicher conceived several series of posters, including a set of limited-edition artist prints. One stands out: where Hitler had been humiliated by sprinter Jesse Owens's win in Berlin, African-American artist Jacob Lawrence painted five black athletes inundating the finish line. For a brief moment, Munich must have seemed a million miles from Berlin - until the murder of the Israeli athletes.

In commissioning the likes of Allen Jones, Josef Albers and RB Kitaj, the Munich Games set the precedent for future artistic commissions. Lichtenstein, Warhol and Hockney are among the celebrated artists to produce subsequent limited editions. This year's London Games, which the exhibition features, include editions by Martin Creed and Michael Craig-Martin. ''One of the criticisms of London 2012 has been that it's given over to artists rather than designers,'' Flood says. ''In response, a number of designers are doing their own posters to show how they would have handled it.''

The logo for London 2012 has also been controversial. Some divine the bizarre agglomeration of objects as Lisa Simpson fellating her brother Bart. ''But it was great because suddenly the whole country was talking about graphic design,'' Flood says.

What is perhaps most striking is the use and or abuse of the Olympic logo itself. For one of the world's most recognisable brands, the Olympic rings - which were designed in 1913 but not used in a poster until the 1928 St Moritz winter Olympics - have been messed with repeatedly. They distort in a heated cauldron of Moscow's 1980 poster, race downhill for the '68 Grenoble Winter Olympics, and regularly lose their signature colours in the Tokyo and Sydney games. In Montreal's 1976 posters, the rings form a podium, while in the Mexico '68 games Lance Wyman transformed the logo into a series of op art ripples.

Collectively the ability to withstand these alterations suggests an impregnable brand identity.

Nevertheless, these are mere warm-ups compared with Danish designer Per Arnoldi's poster for the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics. Gone are the idealised athletes of yore. But gone too, strictly speaking, is the logo. Against a plain field of blue, five perfect circles have been replaced by five equally perfect - just different - shapes, including a square, triangle and heart. Through a simple poster design we can see how far the Olympics has come - from one ideal to another. Where everyone is created equal.

A Call to the Games: Olympic Posters is at the National Sports Museum at the Melbourne Cricket Ground until September 16.