How not to have an Olympic mascot nightmare

March 11, 2009

The five Chinese Olympic mascots

Recognise these chaps?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The London 2012 Olympics organisers will be picking a mascot in the next year, possibly through a public competition. But how can you avoid an Olympic mascot disaster?

The launch of the London 2012 logo a year ago was met by a blizzard of negative public reaction.

At some point in the next 12 months the London organisers will choose a mascot, and throwing the process open to entries from the general public is one option being considered. Whatever method is chosen, avoiding a repeat of the logo storm of negativity will be as important as anything.

Since the first official mascot in 1972, there have been examples of successful and unsuccessful choices. Think of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and many will remember Cobi, the stylised, Picasso-influenced Catalan sheepdog. But try and cast your mind back to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Remember the mascots? They were Syd, Ollie and Millie, now long retreated into obscurity.

Looking back over 36 years of mascots, there are definitely lessons that can be learned.


Whether the designer of the London 2012 mascot is a professional or a member of the public, they should be prepared for barbed salvoes from the minute their design is launched.

Rarely has there been more vitriol for a mascot than that aimed at Izzy, designed for the 1996 Atlanta games.

Izzy and Cobi

Hit and miss: Atlanta’s disastrous Izzy (left) and Cobi

The Simpsons creator Matt Groening described it as “a bad marriage of the Pillsbury doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin” and in the US press it was derided as anything from a “blue slug” to a “sperm in sneakers”.

Twelve years on Atlanta designer John Ryan – who received only a “handsome tie and a bottle of wine” for his work – still looks back with sadness at the reception to his design for Izzy.

“It was very effective for kids, we got a lot of interesting flak from adults. Journalists were ripping the mascot and making it stand for everything that was wrong with the city, even potholes. It was a bad reaction and a lot of bad blood. To this day it will still show up in the press as ‘the much-reviled 1996 mascot’.”

What should have been the crowning moment of Ryan’s career has always meant mixed feelings.

“As a professional I wish it was something I had on the top of my CV… but it’s the red-headed stepchild. I hope that I can prove that I have something else that I will be known for before I die.

“It was amazing and yet as a designer you look back at the process and say that couldn’t have gone any worse.”


Once you’ve dealt with the flak, it’s important to remember that, as with the 2012 logo launch, the worst vituperation will fade.

This was certainly the case with 1992’s Cobi. The launch was greeted with derision from some quarters, with the Catalan president of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch understood to have been displeased. Even the designer, Javier Mariscal, was reported to have said: “It is hard to fall in love at first sight with a dog that looks as if he has been run over by a heavy goods vehicle.”

But after its initial mixed reaction, Cobi showed the value of riding out the storm. From the mascot launch to the start of the games is a matter of years, giving the public and officials a chance to get used the designs and learn to love them. In the end, Cobi won people over.


An Olympic mascot has to fulfil a complicated brief. The Olympics is an event attended and watched on television, in the main, by adults. But the mascot is also a commercial device – there’s no point putting it on stuffed toys, fridge magnets, rubbers, pyjamas and packed-lunch boxes if it doesn’t appeal to kids. And as well as appealing aesthetically to these two divergent constituencies, it must also convey a message.

Munich 1972: Waldi the dachshund
Montreal 1976: Amik the beaver
Moscow 1980: Misha the bear
Los Angeles 1984: Sam the eagle
Seoul 1988: Hodori the tiger
Barcelona 1992: Cobi the Catalan sheepdog
Atlanta 1996: Izzy
Sydney 2000: Syd the platypus, Ollie the kookaburra, Millie the echidna
Athens 2004: Athena and Phevos, dolls of Greek gods
Beijing 2008: Beibei the fish, Jingjing the panda, Huanhuan the Olympic flame, Yingying the antelope and Nini the swallow

“You have got to try and put the use of a mascot in a context. It is a supportive element of communicating something about your brand,” says Rune Gustafson, chief executive of branding consultants Interbrand.

“The mascot will not only have a recognition factor but will also have a commercial opportunity behind it.”

It’s tricky to have a mascot that has gravitas and looks good on pencil sharpeners.

Ryan feels he followed the design imperatives set by Atlanta’s committee.

“The directives were very defined to some high ideals. They seemed to be very child-oriented – they wanted to inspire children all over the world.

“Kids were loving it. Whenever the costume version appeared in groups kids were getting excited. It was very heart warming. But as a mascot designer you want to be loved by all.”


Most Olympics mascot designers have decided not to stray too far from the formula of picking the cutest possible animal associated with the games venue. Even the stylised Cobi was supposed to be a Catalan sheepdog. Moscow’s Misha was a cuddly Russian bear at the height of the Cold War. Los Angeles followed that with an affable eagle.

Ryan considered the route of simply opting for something characteristically Georgian – like a native animal – as “fairly trite”.

Athena and Phevos

Athena and Phevos were the subject of controversy

“We went through the barrage – let’s see, a peanut is from Georgia, a peach, a possum, you started to go through all the Ps. My initial response was let’s not go for an animal.

“You can either get pigeon-holed into this or do something a bit more playful and create a little something that everyone looked at and thought I don’t know what that is.”

In the end the blue cartoonish blob, with a gaping mouth, different coloured eyelid, lightning flash eyebrows and red training shoes, could certainly not have been accused of being characteristically Georgian and justified its working title of Whatizit.

Another departure from the animals theme, Athens’s Athena and Phevos, was criticised by a Greek religious group as being disrespectful.

If the London mascot designers decide not to go down the abstract route they will have plenty of animals to choose from, says Renata Kowalik, conservation programmes manager at the London Wildlife Trust.

The Olympics site in east London has kingfishers and plenty of eels. In the wider area there are water voles and otters. And if you want a symbol of 21st Century Britain, why not go for the black redstart, a robin-like bird that has adapted to the furious urbanisation of the last two centuries.


There is an old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Certainly it’s hard to disagree with the notion that matters of design proceed better when led by one mind.

Misha the bear

Misha the bear presented a cuddly image of Russia

When it comes to the Olympics this is not easy. Committees proliferate.

“When you look back at mascots you very seldom see the designer mentioned,” says Ryan. “They become designed by committee. It gets co-opted by dozens of people who all think they are designers.”

What Ryan originally came up with was tweaked, shifted and recast by a host of competing officials. The greatest design success of the history of mascots, he believes, is Mariscal’s Cobi, aided largely by the designer being allowed full control.


There is no shame in admitting that mascot didn’t work. In the build-up to the 1996 games, the Atlanta organisers sidelined Izzy, apparently suffering embarrassment at any materialisation of the blue entity.

In 2000, Syd the platypus, Ollie the kookaburra and Millie the echidna were not particularly well received. And the vaguely sinister-looking trio found themselves more marginalised as the games went on. There was competition from Fatso the wombat, a very unofficial mascot, who by the end of the games was the more recognisable figure for many.

London should prepare for the same battle if it doesn’t get its mascot design right.


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