Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I've got Mascot Fever!

Meet the Fuwa, or for us Western folk the Friendlies. They are China's Olympic mascots-- Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini. But don't just take my word for it, watch this AMAZING cartoon depicting their origins!

Okay, so there's a fish, a flame, a panda, a swallow, and an antelope. But where do mascots really come from?

Let's take a look at Olympic mascot history, in all its glory. Let's start, as Julie Andrews would say, at the very beginning. It is a very good place to start.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... Schuss.

Schuss is kind of freaky looking, and nobody knows what exactly it is. But, as the predecessor of all Olympic mascots to come, the freakishness is completely appropriate.

The word schuss means a fast downhill ski run. The character Schuss is apparently... doing that? I think?

Schuss was the unofficial mascot to the 1968 Winter Games at Grenoble. He is unofficial, as far as I can tell, because there was never any plush made of him, which is apparently the criterion to be an official Olympic mascot. Plush.

Anyway, some of the souvenirs from the Grenoble games featured his likeness, and when they sold well, some marketing genius got ahold of the idea and... voila! A new Olympic tradition was born!


Everyone, meet Waldi. Waldi, meet everyone. Waldi is the first official Olympic mascot (please note the plushiness). He was introduced to the world at the 1972 Munich games, and was totally not a part of all the suckiness that went down there. See, Waldi is more like the redemption of those damn games-- a message that yes, maybe the Olympics doesn't exactly solve everything, but at least we can give the world a little bit more adorable.

Waldi was modeled after a Cherie von Birkenhof, which is apparently a long haired breed of Dachshund. Because we all know Dachshunds are sherbet-colored.

Canada gives us our first round of Indigenously inspired mascots!

"Amik in Indian language means beaver," the International Olympic Committee's official website proclaims. Sometimes the IOC's politically correct message of international equality falls a little flat, but maybe they were just trying to reflect the general sentiment of the times, which was one of ham-fisted attempts at inclusion of other cultures.

Amik actually derives from the Anishinaabe language (which technically, yes, is an Indian language). The beaver was chosen as a mascot because it represents hard work and dedication and is also native to Eastern Canada. The image itself was only chosen, I imagine, because it was the 70s and crack was just what we did then, man.


1976 also saw the dawn of the Schneemann, which means snowman in what I'm sure the IOC would describe as Lederhosen language (it's actually German, as the games were held in Innsbruck, Austria). Save the most awesome name for the creepiest looking mascot, that's what I always say.

Schneemann holds the upcoming lead in Mascots: The Olympic Horror Massacre Bloodbath and is also grandpappy to Neve and Gliz of Turin '06. But wait up, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

1980: Misha the Bear

Misha was described as "the embodiment of kindness and strength, hospitality and sportmanship, nerve and calm."

Oh yeah. I can see how nervous and yet calm he is. Can't you?

The bear has "an independent character and confidence in its strength-- qualities essential for each competitor." Misha's full name is Mikhail Potapych Toptygin. This revelation, granted by the BBC, only leads me to ask more questions. Why does he have a middle name? Why is he so cute?

Cosmonaut Vladimir Kovalyonok even took Misha into space to the Salyut 6 Laboratory. Apparently, he's still there, hanging out in space.

The Moscow games also had a much less popular mascot named Vigri, the baby seal. He apparently was the mascot only for the yachting events.

Awwww, but look at how adorable he is! It's okay, Vigri, I'll always think you're the most adorable mascot of the 1980 Moscow Games, even if that bastard bear Misha gets all the credit. Oh hey, Vigri, you'll enjoy this-- we named our dog Misha.

Oh, he's even wearing an adorable little cap! I just want to hug that precious little Soviet propaganda tool.

Point of Inquiry? Not that I'm complaining, because this seal is seriously cute, but why did the yachting event get its own mascot?

Raccoon Tragedy Strikes
Meet Roni the raccoon, a last minute replacement mascot.

Roni's back story is actually the saddest of the bunch. The 1980 Lake Placid games was going to present Rocky the Raccoon, the first living mascot in the history of the Olympic games. Unfortunately, Rocky exhibited one of the disadvantages of living creatures-- he died. Right before the games.

And in the mad dash to create a new marketable mascot, corners got cut. At least, that's the only explanation that makes sense to me. 'Cause damn, that's one hideous raccoon.

Uncle Sam Meets Disney Meets the IOC
and they all have a party.

Sam the Eagle helped out when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics. Designed by a team of Disney artists, Sam the Eagle does not quite exhibit the hideous conglomeration of cute and horrifying of, say, Schneeman. Sam the Eagle seems to be a little bit before his time in terms of marketability, simplicity, and overall aesthetics. But never fear, the hideous will return soon, in the form of...

Vucko! The horrifying Serbian wolf!

Cower and tremble before Vucko, the scariest mascot to date (including Schneeman, and I didn't think that was possible). He headlined at the Sarajevo Olympics of 1984.

Seriously, I think he wants to eat my brain. Or at least the hairs of my chinny chin chin.

Vucko was elected mascot by popular vote among the Yugoslav newsreading public. Which leads me to believe that the Yugoslav newsreading public were deranged.

The plush is not much better at all. Vucko wears a ribbon as a scarf and smiles his creepy-ass smile. Do you know what? He probably ate the Lillehammer mascots of '94 when they showed up wherever the retired mascots go.

The Seoul Olympics are GRRRRREAT!

The cute returns with Hodori, the mascot of the Seoul 1988 Olympics. As any great mascot should, Hodori demonstrates his favorite Olympic sport, which is apparently Rhythmic Gymnastics. You twirl that ribbon, Hodori, twirl it like there's no tomorrow.

In a nod to political correctness, Hodori was the first mascot to have a female companion. In a nod to political incorrectness, Hosuni never appears anywhere without Hodori, and appears to be nothing more than a slightly smaller version of the exact same image. Oh well, at least they were trying.

Canada Again Brings the Kitsch

Calgary's 1988 Olympics brought two more members to the mascot family. Hidy and Howdy, billed as inseparable polar bear siblings, they bring to the table much of what Canada is famous for: hospitality, oversized plushy costumes, hokey western wear, and incredible, blinding paleness.

These two were conceived by the International Mascot Corporation. I think, after you see the other Olympic mascot IMC is responsible for, you will join me in my international movement to condemn the corporation and all the plushiness it stands for.

Cobi the Cubist Catalan Sheepdog

Cobi is apparently based on Picasso's interpretation of Las Meninas. Really, I'm not seeing it. But Cobi did bring a certain simplistic adorability to the 1992 Barcelona games.

Although his appearance is unique and creative, his name is not. Cobi is derived from the acronym for the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee (COOB in Spanish). Come on folks! Naming the mascot after your own bureaucratic committee? LAME.

As far as I can tell, Cobi is the first participant in another fine Olympic mascot tradition: starring one's own nationally broadcast television cartoon, only he didn't make it onto TV until after the Olympics were over. So that's 10 points for longevity, but -25 for not doing your job and creating buzz, Cobi. Way to go.

Magique-- It's like Christmas in France

Say hello to Magique, a happy little Snow Imp from That Year When They Just Stopped Trying (also known as Albertville 1992).

Magique is kind of the replacement mascot, however, because the previously announced mascot (Chamois, a happy little mountain goat seen here) was "unceremoniously dropped two years before the games," according to the IOC.

Which is completely ridiculous, if only because everything the IOC does is ceremonious.

There's some speculation on the internet (and, like any good debate on the internet, it's coupled with some fairly pornographic images... I'm just warning you now) that Magique was chosen over Chamois because the theme for that year's ceremonies was Cirque du Soleil and the mountain goat just wasn't fitting in. Honestly, though, I think "fitting in" is the last thing on Magique's mind. He's probably preoccupied with his lack of opposable thumbs and the high fever that's turning him that awful pink color.

Hello Kristen, Hello Unpronounceable

Here are Kristen and Haakon, the first human mascots of the any Olympic games. They come from Lillehammer, Norway, circa 1994. It would normally be sort of creepy to have humanish mascots, but Kristen and Haakon are just so darn cute, I can't say anything else. Instead, I'll let the IOC website speak for me.

"Haakon and Kristin were two children from Norwegian folklore... There were also several pairs of real-life blond, blue eyed Norwegian children who, in keeping with the loveable mascots’ human form, portrayed them in-the-flesh and travelled the world promoting the Games."

Never mind. Still creepy as hell.


It's Izzy, the Whatzit, signifying all that is wrong, horrible, and evil in the world, and, you guessed it, another International Mascot Corporation brainchild.

Instead of poking fun at this atrocity, let me just quote to you Izzy's actual back story thought up by people who actually get paid actual money to do this sort of thing.

"With the first flicker of fire, the renewed Olympic Spirit energized a tiny spark within the flame. As the torch passed on from one Olympiad to the next, the energy became a force so powerful it created a new world, the Torch World, right there in the cauldron. The Whatizits, born of the same force, instinctively knew they were the 'keepers of the flame.' ... Only one, the little blue Whatizit named Izzy, had higher ambitions. He dreamed of leaving Torch World to participate in the Olympic Games on Earth. ... The rights of passage had to be earned by finding the five Olympic rings hidden in the center of Torch World, a rugged and dangerous region where no Whatizit had ever tread. Izzy encountered volcano eruptions, mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, swift rapids, big dark caves, fire-breathing dragons, and other dangers, but valiantly emerged from his quest with all five rings."

I believe I'm not alone when I say... WHAAAAATT???? Atlanta '96, baby.

What, you haven't heard of Japanese owls?

While these Owls, named Sukki, Nokki, Lekki, Tsukki, and Bob, (no, wait, sorry, that's five) do appear to have been drawn by the commission's collective three-year-old daughter, everyone can agree that they are much better designed than some of the previous mascots. After all, at least that three-year-old had some color sensibility.

Not All Australian Animals Are Poisonous

The first games of the new millennium were held in Sydney, and Olly the Kookaburra, Syd the Platypus, and Millie the Echidna were there to greet everyone. They were friendly, happy, and a little bit too cartooney for some folks' taste. For example, since when to echidnas have breasts? Everyone knows they have milk patches and no nipples!

No, seriously, I looked it up.

Also, Platypuses have poisonous leg spines. So, you know, 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

Salt Lake City: Bears Welcome!

We're bringing back the Native American legends, folks. Just a warning.

Salt Lake City's 2002 Olympics looked to the official Olympic motto ("Citius, Altius, Fortius") for mascot inspiration. Also Native American myths. But of course! From the IOC website:

Snowshoe Hare, "Powder" (Swifter): At one time, the sun was burning up the earth. The hare ran swiftly to the top of the mountain. Shooting her arrow at the sun, she dropped it lower in the sky and cooled the land.

Coyote, "Copper" (Higher): When the world turned dark and frozen, the coyote climbed the highest mountaintop and stole the flame from the fire people. He brought warmth back to the earth.

American Black Bear, "Coal" (Stronger): Long ago brave hunters left their villages to track the mighty bear, but the bear was too strong and outlasted the hunters. Today, sons of the hunters continue the chase [the bear] in the night sky.

Funny, they left out all the parts where Coyote gets horny. I wonder why.

Know Your Roots, Y'all

Athens 2004 knew how to kick it Old School. And by Old School I mean Bronze Age. Athena and Phevos are based off of ancient dolls or religious symbols from back in the back in the day.

Or, to put it another way, I kind of love the official Beijing Olympic website's description of them:

"The lovely mascots, Athena and Phevos, with their whacking feet, longish necks and puny heads, one in deep yellow and the other in deep blue, are based on dolls, thousands of years old, found at archeological sites in Greece."

Neve! Gliz!
Torino '06 saw a new breed of Olympic mascots: overly stylized crystallized water structures. But wait, I feel like I've seen this before, perhaps in 1976...

Neve is a "gentle, kind and elegant snowball," while Gliz is a "lively, playful ice cube."
They apparently reflect the many facets of Turin 2006: passion, enthusiasm, culture, elegance, and love of the environment and of sport.

Of course. I totally get that the snowball is elegant and the ice cube is concerned about environmentalism. Duh.


And now we're back at the present day. What a long, strange journey it has been. Remember, Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini welcome you to Beijing. They had better-- the first syllables of their names, when said together, mean "Beijing welcomes you" in Chinese.

After all, nothing says "Welcome" like a mascot.


UPDATE OMG: There have been other Olympiads since, so let's check over on those!

Vancouver 2010: Quatchi, Sumi, and Miga! A sasquatch, a thunderbird, and an orcabear. BFFs4 LYFE. (I freaking love these mascots. I have no qualms!)

Singapore Youth Olympics 2010: Lyo and Merly. Who doesn't love mythical sea creatures?

London 2012: Another ham-fisted attempt at allowing a marketing firm design your mascot.

Long Izzy quote from http://www.izzypins.com/history.php, an actual fan site for actual fans of actual Izzy pins. Really.
The photos came from a lot of different sources, including but not limited to the IOC official website, Beijing 2008's official website, the photos from a returned Mormon missionary, and various blogs across the internet. I'm not hotlinking any of them-- all the images have been downloaded and re-uploaded. If somebody needs me to find where I found them, just ask. I probably should have kept better track.
Barukh Hazan, Olympic Sports and Propaganda Games: Moscow 1980, Transaction Publishers.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Sport Solves Cuban Missile Crisis!

"Sport reaches areas far beyond any sphere of political influence and has probably done more to unify nations than any politician has been capable of." --Nelson Mandela

"The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."
--Olympic Charter

The Olympics holds a strange and quirky place in International Affairs. After all, where else can the North Koreans and the South Koreans officially stand under the same flag? (Without Kim Jong Il hovering his finger over some big red button, that is. And even though people might say "BAD Kim Jong Il, nobody gets to touch the button, the man is Kim Jong Il! What are you going to do about it?)

The International Olympic Committee is a Non-Governmental Organization that is charged with the mission of promoting the Olympic Movement throughout the world. What is the "Olympic Movement"? you might ask. Well, it includes such bullet points as:
1. Olympism is a philosophy of life,exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
5. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.
The Olympics is about competition, sure, but it's also about the promotion of peace, goodwill, and understanding through competition. And here's the thing: sometimes it works.

Of course, sometimes it doesn't work. I could mention the 1936 Berlin Games (the Hitler Olympics) or the 1972 Munich Games (where terrorists killed 11 athletes). But let us focus instead on my example from before. In 2000, North Korea and South Korea marched into the Sydney stadium under a single flag. Two athletes, one from each country, marched out in front of a unified team. These countries have had a flag battle at the DMZ for decades-- one flag gets taller, so the other country has to get a taller flag, and so on.

Okay, so North Korea and South Korea competed as different teams, yeah, but so do the US and Puerto Rico. There's only so much you can ask at once.

The Olympic motto is “Citius – Altius – Fortius.” Swifter. Faster. Stronger.

Maybe someday we'll all get there.

Korean Flag

Sources: Nelson Mandela quoted by Michael Payne in Olympic Tournaround, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006).
Olympic Charter, IOC, in force from 7 July 2007.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Torch Goes to India!

India has figured out a way to keep the public from protesting the torch as it travels through the streets of New Delhi.

Don't let them in.

No, seriously, the public is not allowed to be involved in the torch relay at all in New Delhi. Entire streets normally full of vendors, bicycles, and traffic are closed off entirely, as Bollywood's brightest stars carry the torch through the streets.

It makes sense in a way. After all, India has the largest population of displaced Tibetans in the world. And they are not happy.

Because I have a blog, I must have an opinion. And my opinion here is... I'm torn. Are the Olympic torch relay protests an effective tool of public mobilization toward the goal of better human rights for all citizens of the world, and specifically for citizens of Tibet and Darfur? Or are they merely a symbolic gesture toward a politically unimportant symbol?

In essence, the protests are effective overall in increasing awareness of China's human rights abuses. But they are not the best forum to bring these issues to the table.

Part of the reason that the IOC decided to have the Olympics in China was to expand the Olympics' legitimacy as an international organization by including countries that have never hosted the games before. And it was also to encourage China to increase transparency and improve its human rights record. After all, the Olympics brings a level of international scrutiny from both the press and the international community. After all, the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia was an impetus to force Australia to confront its past oppression of Aboriginal people.

But it doesn't seem to be working.

China keeps cracking down. And they are keeping the international media out.

There are better ways to protest. Much better ways. Boycott Chinese products (yes, that does include your cell phone, iPod, and most of the gadgets in your house). Meet the ships coming in from China, and protest the import of their products. Become more concerned about lead paint in toys imported from China. Pressure media outlets to be more aggressive in pursuing news in China, and pressure internet search engines to end censorship of outside websites.

But people are lazy, and Tibet is a happy place. The Free Tibet bumper stickers and flags are pretty and well-designed, very fashionable on cars and adorning walls. Overall, it's much easier to object to a totally symbolic piece of Chinese power: a torch, whose flame can go out.

Oh, by the way? The torch will be going through Tibet and up Mount Everest. That will be interesting.

Image source: torchrelay.beijing2008.cn
Yeah, it's a Chinese website.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Olympics and Political Protests: Then and Now

As a serious blogger of the Olympics, I feel it is my duty to point out relevant links that have been previously pointed out to me. In that spirit, I give you an article from the New York Times about protests back in the day.

The gist: even the ancient Greeks got angry about where the games were held! Only instead of protests with signs and projectile sponges, the Greeks had wars.

The ancient Greeks are officially more badass at everything they did. They wrestled naked, they created Democracy, and when they were angry about something, they were really, really angry about it. They're not digging out their retro "Free Tibet" flags, they were digging out their loincloths and spears instead.

Someday I'll have a more in-depth look at the current politico-Olympic situation. In the meantime, I'll just leave you with this:

Hey, guys, I hear they're hosting the games in a country we don't agree with! Let's dig out some signs and bother people participating in an act that has only symbolic significance!

Hey, guys, I hear they're holding the Olympics in a city-state we don't agree with! Let's slaughter them while they try to play sports!

"Beware of Greeks Bearing Placards." Tony Perrottet. NYTimes.com.
Images: us.yimg.com, meltaylor.files.wordpress.com (from the movie

Friday, April 11, 2008

An Adventure in Symbology, Part 1: THE FLAME

The Olympics Games are at their core a display of superb athleticism, clearly, but their mission is to serve a far loftier goal. The Olympics symbolize peace and international cooperation, and it has totally worked! Since 1896 we haven't had any global conflicts! ...Or, like, two World Wars. But let's leave that discussion for a later date, for today-- the Olympic Flame made its way to Argentina!

Each Olympic Season, the Torch is lit in Ancient Olympia in a very strange ceremony involving solar power and togas. No, really...

Back in the back in the day, in Ancient Greece, the Olympics were a time of relative peace in a violent world. (You've seen 300, right? It was like that, only without the loin cloths.) During the games, the Greek equivalents of the IOC would light a flame in front of Hera's temple that would burn throughout the games as a sign of peace.

Apparently, flames in front of temples were kind of like voicemail back then:
"Yo, you want to invade Athens?"
"Uhhh... I think I saw the Hera Torch was lit yesterday. Let me check... yup. No, no fighting for at least another couple days."
"Dammit! I was really looking forward to crushing the Athenians today."
"Patience, Leonidas. Tomorrow is another day. Our slaughter can wait until they're done with the naked wrestling."
"Oooh. Want to go watch?"
"Hell yes!"

The first modern torch relay was during the 1936 Olympics, better known as the Olympics Hitler Hosted and Jesse Owens Did That Thing At. A German history professor (named Carl Diem) decided it would be a good idea to bring the torch back. Because you know what the games were missing? Fire.

When I was a kid, I had this idea that the torch was carried on foot all the way around the world. When I learned otherwise, a little bit of me was crushed. I mean, I knew that runners couldn't actually run across the ocean, but I thought it was possible that it would be carried everywhere, by foot, relayed from cancer survivor to middle school teacher in a big fluffy burning symbolic gesture of togetherness. Of course that's not true. It took Phileas Fogg eighty days to circle the globe, after all, and he didn't have a torch to bear. Well, not a physical one anyway.

Instead, the Olympics is a fan of using a mix of conventional transportation (like boats, trains, and buses) and really weird transportation (like dog sled. Or Rube Goldberg Machine). For example, in 2000, the torch was carried over the Barrier Reef. And by over, I mean in the water. Submerged, but designed to stay lit. Perhaps the most ridiculous stretch of the term "relay" was in 1976, where the flame "was transformed into a radio signal," and then, according to Wikipedia, broadcast via satellite over to Canada, where it activated a laser to reignite the flame.

Canadians are crazy.

This year, the relay has already been in some trouble. Everywhere it travels, the Free Tibet protesters try to, um, protest it. The routes it traveled had to be altered in San Francisco, it had to be whisked away in a bus in France, and someone actually managed to extinguish the flame in London. (So much for ever-burning symbol of peace and cooperation...)

But that's not all! It is slated to make stops all over, including in Pyongyang, Dar Es Salaam, and (this will be awkward) Tibet. Seriously, the torch is going over Everest. Which is conveniently located within the most controversial topic of the Beijing Olympics. Awesome.

Look at it go! Whee!

So, will the torch continue to be a symbol of international peace and unity? Or will it become the symbol of China's unhealthy relationship with human rights? Stay tuned!

Coming Up:
Why Are So Many People Angry at China?
Political Protests and the Olympics

"Greeks test Beijing torch lighting." Mirror.uk.co. 3 March 2008.
"How Olympic Torches Work." Howstuffworks.com.
"Olympic Flame." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_torch.
Olympics. Chris Oxlade and David Ballheimer.
"Argentine Torch Relay Unhindered." http://news.bbc.co.uk. 11 April 2008.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


The Olympics captivates the world.

It's true. Okay, so maybe the citizens of Palau are less likely than the average Swede to pay any attention to the decathalon... but it brings the world together in a way that very few other things do.

Competition without guns. Adversaries without violence (...except for wrestling. And judo. But those are different!). Hell, a united Korea without a complete restructuring of the world order. Sportsmanship trumping politics, or rather, interacting with and learning from politics in a completely unique way.

If I were honest when people ask me my favorite sport, I would say the Olympics, without hesitation. It's sport at its best: varied, fast, and with completely uninterrupted prime time coverage.

Welcome to Five Rings: Mount Olympics. After all, as we all know, the more epic it sounds, the more epic it is.