The OxStu’s history of the Olympic mascots

wenlock mandevilleWith the snow and ice in Oxford firmly reminding us that spring might take just a while to arrive, we look ahead to the sporting phenomenon that will be Sochi in exactly a year’s time. Sports, crowds, underdog stories… Something that we’ve all come to expect at the Olympics. But there’s something else. The mascots. Some say that the mascots represent the tradition and culture of the host country; other cynics say that it’s a crowd-pandering ploy set up by the IOC, a fool-proof way of racking in the extra cash. Either way, love them or hate them, the Olympic mascots have become inextricably linked with the Games, and here’s a rundown of some of the best and worst to date.

First up is Waldi, a somewhat simple looking dachshund who represented the Munich games in 1972, and whose claim to fame is being the first official mascot. Waldi appeared in a variety of different colour schemes, but you have to love the Germans for steadfastly refusing to incorporate all the colours of the Olympic rings in Waldi. Fun fact: Waldi’s designer, Otl Aicher, also designed the logo for the airline Lufthansa.

Second-best is not something you’d associate with being picked for an Olympic mascot, but Roni the raccoon was just that. Originally for the 1980 Winter Olympics, organisers had planned to use a real raccoon, Rocky, as the mascot. Unfortunately, Rocky died; a dead raccoon wouldn’t have gone down quite well as a national symbol, so Roni was created.

For the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, it was all about Misha the bear. The organisers got it completely right; who wouldn’t love a smiley bear which is synonymous with the host country? Misha was the first Olympic mascot to achieve large-scale commercial success but he wasn’t only about the money; he has an emotional side too, appearing in the closing ceremony with a tear in his eye and disappeared from the stadium as the games ended, flying away with the balloons he was holding. All in all, a success from Russia with this loveable bear, but the row of Mishas in the photo above seems a little bit ominous… Bears do have a dark side after all.

Hands down the worst Olympic mascot to date, Izzy remains a mystery to us all. Wikipedia deems Izzy an “abstract figure”, whilst all we know is that his name is derived from a tenuous pun: “Whatizit”. Not only do we not know what Izzy is, we were never sure what he looked like due to his constant change in appearance, be it growing a new nose or losing his bottom row of teeth. Surely Atlanta would have more to offer? Nope. It was clear that organisers should have spent more money on a better form of marketing strategy than to come up with a mascot who was nicknamed “Sperm in Sneakers”.

Powder, Copper and Coal were what the Olympic mascots are all about; they are three animals indigenous to Utah and in Native American folklore, and were named based on the skiing and mining heritage of Utah. If it were not for the fact that Powder strongly resembles a world famous character from Nintendo (hint: starting with Pi- and ending in –chu) this trio would be faultless.

If one Olympic mascot wasn’t enough, Beijing gave us five. Collectively they were known as “Fuwa”, which directly translated to “good-luck dolls”. Ironically enough, in the lead-up to the Olympics there were some unfortunate events that had similarities with the Fuwa characters, earning them the nickname “Wuwa” (witch dolls). And if that wasn’t enough, the artist Han Meilin suffered from two heart attacks while designing these mascots.

Vancouver was the first Olympics in which there was a mascot “side-kick”. Miga, Quatchi, Sumi (and Mukmuk) represented mythical creatures appearing in urban legends. Cute, very approachable and layered with plenty of cultural meaning, the Vancouver mascots were a success, especially Mukmuk, “capturing the hearts of Games-goers everywhere”. So much so, that there was a protest held to promote Mukmuk from a side-kick who only existed in cyberspace to the complete mascot status. Maybe organisers should be careful to take note in the future,that they should be inclusive to all the mascots, as well as competitors.

And, last but not least, came Wenlock and Mandeville. They suffered a similar fate to Izzy in the fact that no one really knew what they were beyond “steel drops with cameras for eyes”. A one-eyed monster? A drunken one-night stand between a Teletubby and a Dalek? These were all words used to describe the mascots of London 2012.

As for Sochi 2014, after a nationwide vote the Olympic mascots have already been unveiled. So in a year’s time, don’t just watch the medal ceremonies, the emotional stories or the sporting glory; keep an eye out on the mascots too.

PHOTO/Dept. of Culture, Media and Sport