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July 1, 2012 / thatsarahdean

Icon of the month: Olympic Mascots

First published in Third Way magazine, July/August 2012

The first official Olympic mascot was Waldi, a multi-coloured Dachshund created for the 1972 Munich Games by graphic artist Otl Aicher. Waldi proved so popular in the run up to the games that organisers decided to redesign the route of the marathon to resemble his shape.

Whilst rerouting an event isn’t a requirement the International Olympic Committee’s official guidelines for mascots are incredibly complex. An official Olympic mascot should “be the concrete form to the Olympic spirit of participation, solidarity and fair play; spread the Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship; promote the history and culture of the host city; and give the event a festive atmosphere.” Unsurprising with such a complex brief a majority of the 21 mascots created for summer and winter games since 1972 have been regarded as design disasters. As anyone who has ever tried to explain the Trinity or Eucharistic Transubstantiation will know, explaining several ideas clearly through one object or symbol is tough.

Many mascots have failed to catch on because they are just too complicated. For example Izzy was the first computer-generated mascot, created for Atlanta 96. He/she/it was a “Whatisit”, a shape shifter “eager to make friends with people around the world.” It seems people didn’t want to make friends with “an annoying blue sperm wearing sneakers.”

On several occasions artists trying to incorporate indigenous culture into their designs have often been accused of disrespect and outright racism. The artist who designed the mascots for the Beijing Olympics even claimed the job was cursed. His Feng Shui inspired characters are said to have caused natural disasters in run up to the games and two heart attacks for the artist himself.

Other designers have played safe, stripping their designs right back, thereby creating rather boring mascots. For example Amik the Beaver for Montreal ’76 had none of the cuteness you might expect from Canada’s national animal, as he was an expressionist black blob that looked like you had a stain on your t-shirt. Haakon and Kristen at Lillehammer ‘94 were just two local children wandering around in traditional Viking dress. And even Disney couldn’t get it right when they designed Sam the Eagle for the Los Angeles games in 1984. Remember him? No. He was just a bird in a hat.

The most popular Olympic mascot ever is widely regarded to be Barcelona 92’s Cobi the dog. Critics initially derided his cubist inspired, flat-faced design, but children and tourists couldn’t get enough of him and toys and merchandise flew off shelves.  He even had his own TV series, which ran long after the games had finished.

The Vancouver 2010 games had a whole team of cute creations led by Quatchi the Sasquatch. One, a marmot called Mukmuk was designated by the designers as a sidekick and so didn’t feature on merchandise.  Mukmuk fans started a campaign for him to be awarded full mascot status.  Organisers eventually bowed to pressure and issued official Mukmuk toys. (Proof that where there’s Mukmuk, there’s brass.)

Ultimately mascots are a way to make money. Get your mascot right and you can bring in over 25% of the cost of the games in merchandising revenue. When the London 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville were unveiled, games chief Lord Coe said “We created our mascots for children. By linking young people to the values of sport, (they) will help inspire kids to strive to be the best they can be”. All very noble, Seb, but it’s not entirely true is it? The mascots need to appeal to kids, so they pester their mum into buying them the lunchbox, the t-shirt and the limited edition Sheffield steel cutlery set

The critical consensus is that for London 2012 once again the Olympic mascots are over-designed. The fact that each mascot has one eye, which is also a camera has an uncomfortable resonance with CCTV, particularly for a games that began it’s planning process amidst the 7/7 attacks.  At their unveiling that Lord Coe said the mascots would set the tone for London 2012, seemingly that tone is Orwellian.

Olympic mascots are iconic as cute cheerleaders, a family friendly way into sport and a demonstration as to why design by committee is never a good idea. Whether Wenlock or Mandeville merchandise will be overflowing the bargain bins on 10th September remains to be seen.

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