Olympic mascots: Creative, cartoonish, at times contentious

Feb 18, 2022, 6:42 AM | Updated: 9:09 pm
FILE - People take photos of Olympic mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, center, and Paralymic mascot Shuey Rhon...

FILE - People take photos of Olympic mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, center, and Paralymic mascot Shuey Rhon Rhon, left, in the snow at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 13, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File)

(AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File)

BEIJING (AP) — The panda mascot of the Beijing Games has been a huge success here in the Chinese capital, where fans have lined up for hours to buy plush dolls of the round cartoon, Bing Dwen Dwen.

Then last week, the character appeared on Chinese TV — and horrified viewers by speaking with a grown man’s voice.

“I don’t think it’s cute anymore,” one commenter said on Chinese social media. “It’s just an old man.”

The incident was a minor blemish on the character’s popularity; by week’s end, with the close of the Games approaching, the cult of Bing Dwen Dwen — one of the more ubiquitous Olympics mascots of recent years — was still going strong and drawing long lines for purchases. But it marked the latest comic mishap in the pantheon of Olympic characters.

The notion of a character as a representative of — and a distillation of — a product or event has a long and rich history across the world. In Asia, the creativity is widespread: Packaged goods are brimming with various colorful and cartoonish spokesanimals, spokesfoods and spokesfruits.

In an Olympics context, mascot characters are supposed to embody the culture of their host cities and fuel interest in the event through the merchandising of toys and other memorabilia. But they aren’t always a sure-fire hit. And at times, they’ve been been downright polarizing.

At the Sydney Games in 2000, for example, an unathletic character named Fatso the Wombat became a rebuke to the wholesome images of the official mascots. At the London Games in 2010, a newspaper likened the one-eyed mascots to “Cyclopean nightmares.”

But the most widely ridiculed mascot may have been at the Atlanta Games in 1996, which featured a cross-eyed blue character that was supposed to represent “information technology” and the city’s ambitions as a technology hub. The creation was introduced at the passing of the torch to Atlanta at the end of the Barcelona Games, when a giant costumed character ran onto the stage to awkwardly join a dance routine.

“He’s in these light blue tights, and the blob body sits way up high, so there’s a lot of leg,” said Sarah Dylla, who curated an exhibit of the Games at the Atlanta History Center.

The character’s name — “WhatIzIt” — deepened the audience confusion because it seemed like a question, but nobody knew the answer, Dylla said.

“It’s an embarrassment is what it is,” declared a review by Catherine Fox, an art critic at an Atlanta paper.

The character was subsequently tweaked and renamed Izzy. Despite the media mockery, Dylla said Izzy proved popular among children and that his nonsensical being might have paved the way for other cartoon characters, including another divisive mascot: Wenlock, from the London Games in 2012.

According to Olympic organizers, Wenlock was supposed to be made from the steel used to build London’s Olympic Stadium, and the giant eye on his face was the “lens of a camera, filming everything he sees.” Some found the appearance unsettling; the Guardian called Wenlock and his look-alike mascot for the Paralympics “by far the worst mascots of any Olympics.”

Opting for more conventional characters hasn’t guaranteed success either, however.

After organizers of the Sydney Games in 2000 selected a trio of cartoon animals representing Australia, the mascots ended up being outshined by a big-bottomed character named Fatso the Wombat that rose to popularity on an Australian comedy show.

Fatso got so popular that athletes carried him to the podium at medal ceremonies, and Olympic officials were asked at a press conference whether he was “stealing the show” and if they were moving to ban him.

“I’m not aware of banning Fatso,” an Olympic official responded.

Despite the embarrassment they can sometimes cause Olympic organizers, mascots have nevertheless become an important way for host cities to put their stamp on the Games and widen the appeal of the event.

And though the mascots typically vanish soon after the Olympics end, it’s their temporary existence that can fuel buying frenzies for souvenirs, particularly among attendees who want mementos of their experience, said Keith Niedermeier, a marketing professor at Indiana University.

“They’re wildly collectible,” he said.

That has been true of Bing Dwen Dwen, which (not who!) has gotten a big publicity boost at medal ceremonies where athletes are given a doll of the bear to hold on the podium. Yet the superstar panda didn’t get through the Games unscathed.

During a news segment on Chinese state TV last week, the mascot was seen bouncing around while interviewing a Chinese free skier. The voice that emerged from the bear was of an adult man, creating a jarring effect. A reporter was later shown emerging from inside the costume, but the backlash on Chinese social media was swift.

“It was a middle-aged man inside Bing Dwen Dwen. I’m horrified,” one user wrote.

The hashtag “#BingDwenDwenHasSpoken” began trending, prompting Chinese officials to ban it, as they often do with grassroots expressions with any whiff of controversial sentiment. Beijing Olympic organizers clarified on their social media account that the character on TV was an impostor — and clarified in an email that the “real” Bing Dwen Dwen isn’t able to speak.

The episode doesn’t appear to have dampened the panda’s popularity. On Saturday, the wait to get into the shop selling Bing Dwen Dwen toys in the main media center was still hours long.

__

AP Researcher Chen Si contributed to this report. More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

The Sturgeon moon rises behind a replica of an ancient bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon, in Corint...
Associated Press

AP Week in Pictures: Europe and Africa

Aug. 12-19, 2022 From the presidential election in Kenya to the European Championship being held in Munich, Associated Press photographers were out capturing the moment. Rain fell in London after a long very dry period that continues in most of Europe, while the giant flower carpet in Brussels was displayed for the first time in […]
1 day ago
San Diego Padres' Juan Soto throws his bat after striking out with the bases loaded to end the seve...
Associated Press

Nationals rally against Darvish, Hader to beat Padres 3-1

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Juan Soto of the San Diego Padres came to bat against his former team, the Washington Nationals, with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning of a tie game. The sellout crowd of 41,820 anticipated something big from its new superstar. It didn’t happen. Soto went down swinging […]
1 day ago
Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird (10) is introduced before Game 1 of the team's WNBA basketball first-r...
Associated Press

Loyd has big finish, Storm beat Mystics 86-83 in Game 1

SEATTLE (AP) — Breanna Stewart had 23 points and 12 rebounds, Jewell Loyd scored 12 of her 16 points in the final five minutes and the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm beat the fifth-seeded Washington Mystics 86-83 on Thursday night. Loyd didn’t make her first field goal until the 4:52 mark of the fourth quarter, but she […]
1 day ago
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith (7) drops to pass as Chicago Bears' Kyler Gordon (6) closes...
Associated Press

Smith, error-prone Seahawks struggle in 27-11 loss to Bears

SEATTLE (AP) — Geno Smith’s chance to gain an edge over Drew Lock for Seattle’s starting quarterback job was hindered by his team’s sloppy performance. Smith and the Seahawks were overwhelmed in a 27-11 loss to the Chicago Bears on Thursday night in the second preseason game for both teams, which was mostly a dud […]
1 day ago
Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. watches his three-run home run against the New York Yankee...
Associated Press

Springer, Guerrero lead Jays to 9-2 rout of slumping Yanks

NEW YORK (AP) — George Springer went 5-for-5, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a three-run homer to cap a five-run second inning off Frankie Montas, and the Toronto Blue Jays routed the slumping New York Yankees 9-2 on Thursday night. Jose Berríos (9-5) bounced back from a pair of rough outings to pitch 6 2/3 effective […]
1 day ago
New York Mets catcher James McCann, left, attempts to tag Atlanta Braves' Vaughn Grissom at home pl...
Associated Press

Fried, Harris lead Braves over deGrom, Mets to win series

ATLANTA (AP) — Max Fried likes where the Atlanta Braves stand during this most recent hot streak — and how they competed against Jacob deGrom the NL East-leading New York Mets. “I think that’s a really good team over there,” Fried said. “They play really consistent baseball night in and night out, and we know […]
1 day ago
Olympic mascots: Creative, cartoonish, at times contentious