Depending on who you ask, Olympic mascots are the weird/beloved ambassadors of their respective games. Almost as emblematic as the six Olympics rings or the torch, their unique appearances have gained a reputation for speaking to a host's nation's sensibilities -- or their nonsense.
Why do the Olympics have mascots?
An official International Olympic Committee (IOC) mascot reference guide states that mascots are cultural emblems for their unique host city. But it goes without saying that the Olympic mascots are also used to push merchandise. Rio's mascots merchandise sales are expected to gross $400 million, the Associate Press reports.
The first Olympic mascot was a living dog. Scottish terrier Smoky was born in Olympic Village right before the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games began. Although Smokey is not recognized as an official mascot, he wore a coat declaring him one while he was alive.
Grenoble tried to jump-start a mascot tradition when they hosted the winter games in 1968. Schuss, a smiling skiier, was a toy that became heavily associated with Grenoble's games. That same year, Mexico City featured a dove and a jaguar as the unofficial mascots of the summer games.
The Olympics began to roll out official mascots with the Munich 1972 summer games. The first recognized mascot was a wildly popular dachshund named Waldi.
How are they designed?
The hosting nation's organizing committees decide which artists design their Olympic and Paralympic mascots, which are announced and marketed simultaneously. This year, Brazil chose independent animation company Birdo Studio to create their Olympic and Paralympic mascots Vinicius and Tom. Cartoon shorts of the duo by Birdo have cropped up on Cartoon Network Brazil.
Olympic mascots are not regulated by the IOC, but final approval must be given by the executive board. Because of this, mascots have gained a reputation for being quirky. At best, somewhat lovable and at worst,
downright horrifying. Here's how we rank the most notable podium pals:
Cobi: Barcelona, 1992 Summer Olympics
Was Cobi a dog? A naked human? A dog forced to stand like a human?
Drawn by Cubist-inspired cartoonist Javier Mariscal, Cobi is based on sheepdogs indigenous to Northern Spain. They probably don't have opposable thumbs though.
Magique: Albertville, 1992 Winter Olympics
1992 was not a good year for mascots. Albertville's Magique is a star-shaped imp wearing France's national colours who looks like he swallowed a Rubik's cube.
It's not clear why Albertville chose the strangely cube-congested imp, but his star shape is meant to symbolize imagination.
Phevos and Athena: Athens, 2002 Summer Olympics
More awful design choices. These vague fleshy walking chicken nuggets are supposed to represent Athena and Apollo from Greek mythology. Somehow.
Amik: Montreal, 1976 Summer Olympics
A simple beaver with a simple sash. Amik, which is Anishnaabe for beaver, was chosen because beavers are Canada's national animal. As far as Olympic-tier mess-ups go, Amik's easily interpret able design was a safe bet. Amik is timeless and mild-mannered, which is as Canadian as it gets.
Sam: Los Angeles, 1996 Summer Olympics
Unless this bird of prey was chugging hot dogs, Sam could not have been more aggressively American if he tried. Sam, a bald eagle wearing an Uncle Sam hat, was created by a Disney executive. It's kind of alarming that the first line of his description is an assurance of child safety.
"Sam looks friendly and cheerful in order not to frighten children," his official Olympic page reads.
Izzy: Atlanta, 2012 Summer Olympics
The IOC drinks to forget this mascot.
Once called "the Sperm in Sneakers," Izzy is the hottest of hot messes. An actual abomination, he was derived from the made-up phrase "Whatizit?" and meant to symbolize literally nothing, Izzy emerged out of a tight deadline, money woes, and an artist who was new to Atlanta.
Izzy's haphazard design of a blue alien with red clown kicks was the mascot equivalent of the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoticon. "Simpsons" co-creator Matt Groening dubbed it a "bad marriage of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin." Yikes.
In a way, Izzy's utter failure was a lesson to all other mascots: cute and cuddly takes precedent over nouveau randomness. That is, until...
Wenlock: London, 2012 Summer Olympics
Because someone thought a piece of warped steel would be an acceptable representative of megalopolis London, Wenlock was born.
Wenlock is a cyclops whose all-seeing eye is a surveillance camera in a totally not Big Brother way. His backstory is that he was born from a magical drop of steel from the London stadium's construction. He's named after the Wenlock Olympian Games, which have been held in a small shire in England since 1850.
He ran a short-lived Twitter account, with suspiciously nosed emojis and is most notable for hanging with Usain Bolt and dabbing, or at least the 2012 version of it.
Misha: Moscow, 1980 Summer Olympics
No other mascot has done more for its country than Misha from Moscow. As the smiling tiny bear touted as Russia's cuddly ambassador to the world, Misha served as a warm child-friendly sight as the peak of the Cold War. His image, starkly different from the traditionally gruff bear common in Russian lore, propelling Olympic merchandise sales forward while 55 nations boycotted the games.
Beloved by many, Misha's tearful goodbye as he floated away at the end of the games is one of the most touching moments of any Olympic closing ceremony. (Misha's unforgettable teardrop starts at around two minutes.)
Polar Bear, Hare, and Snow Leopard: Sochi, 2014 Winter Olympics
With their bedroom eyes, this trio was Russia's unsettling answer to Beijing's five cursed mascots.
Not only did they creep out more kids; Mischa's creator hates the polar bear and thought the mascots had no personality, reports the Wall Street Journal.
"When your idea is stolen, how can you like it?" he says. "The smile, the eyes, the nose were all stolen from my bear. They just pumped him up and made him fatter."
Polar Bear proved to be a total Misha ripoff when it gave closing ceremony viewers a throwback tear rolling down its face.
Fuwa: Beijing, 2008 Summer Olympics
Nicknamed "Fuwa," which means good luck dolls, these five mascots were an ambitious undertaking by China. Each represented a different continent and had various traits to go along with them, including their FengShui element and personality type. However, their cute faces of hid a sinister backstory.
It started in the production process. As artist Han Meilin designed them, he suffered two heart attacks. Then in 2008, multiple disasters were blamed on the Fuwa. For example, blue mascot Beibei, who represented water, was blamed for flooding in South China. They were re-dubbed "Wuwa" by superstitious Chinese online commentators, which means witch dolls.
Nowadays, giant abandoned statues of Beijing's mascots made headlines for being symbolic of the high cost of hosting.
Miga & Quatchi: Vancouver, 2012 Winter Olympics
Combining Asian-inspired art and Indigenous mythology led to Vancouver's lumbering Quatchi, a friendly foodie Sasquatch, and Miga, who is part-Spirit bear and part-killer whale. Their cutesy faces were confusing for folks. Following Beijing's Fuwa dolls, many thought they were also dolls. Hard to blame them, considering neither are based on animals native to Vancouver. (However their sidekick Mukmuk the Vancouver Island marmot is!)
Vinicius: Rio, 2016 Summer Olympics
A yellow cat-hybrid, Vinicius' backstory states he is an fusion of various Brazilian wildlife, endowed with stretchy powers. Vinicius was born from Brazil's joy after hearing Rio would host the Olympics and is named after Brazilian bossanova lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, who penned the famed "Girl From Ipanema." Vinicius' Paralympic counterpart, a leafy creature named Tom, is an amalgam of all of Brazil's plants.
Vinicius is faring better than Brazil's Olympic team own mascot, who was gunned down.. A soldier shot Juma, a chained jaguar that represented Brazil's jaguar mascot Ginga at a Rio opening event, after it escaped.
Soohorang: PyeongChang, 2018 Summer Olympics
Soohorang the snow leopard will be representing South Korea in 2018. With a recognizable look (clearly an animal, not a chicken nugget or an Izzy repeat) and fur that's just begging to be made into a plush toy, Soohorang is bound to be a hit for merchandising and kid fans worldwide.
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