The face of the Games

It was in the 1972 Munich Olympics that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began to make use of mascots. And it was a wise decision by the IOC. The mascot would take the Olympics directly to children. It would also remain forever as a live symbol of a particular Olympics and the legacy of the host city, apart from the mercantile opportunities.

(From left) Fu Niu Lele, the Beijing Paralympics mascot; Mandeville, the mascot of the London Paralympics; Misha of Moscow Olympics and Athena of Athens Olympics, with children in Rio de Janeiro.   -  getty images

When an ailing elephant died in Kerala’s famous temple town of Guruvayur 11 years ago, many grown-up men wept. The death of the 27-year-old elephant — he was called Kutti Narayanan — also made national news. Kutti Narayanan was said to have represented Appu, the cute little dancing elephant that was the mascot of the Asian Games in New Delhi in 1982.

If the mascot of an Asian Games could capture the imagination of people, imagine what an Olympic mascot could do. We still haven’t forgotten Misha, the adorable little bear with a most charming smile, have we?

Misha, from Moscow 1980, was the first Olympic mascot to make a truly global impression. It remains one of the most popular mascots from the Olympics. Misha became so popular that it became a cartoon character and was featured in animated films.

Misha was one of the mascots that arrived in Rio de Janeiro in late 2014 on the occasion of the unveiling of the Rio Olympics mascot Vinicius. Athena from Athens 2004, Fu Niu Lele from the Beijing Paralympics 2008 and Wenlock from the 2012 London Olympics were also there among others. And they all caused a lot of excitement at the Rio International Airport, especially among the children. It was in the 1972 Munich Olympics that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began to use mascots. And it was a wise decision by the IOC. The mascot would take the Olympics directly to children. It would also remain forever as a live symbol of a particular Olympics and the legacy of the host city, apart from the mercantile opportunities. So, it is never easy to come up with a suitable mascot.

“In designing an effective mascot, the difficulty lies in creating a character that effectively represents a brand that resonates with both the Olympics and the image the host city wishes to convey to the global audience,” write Gerald Griggs, Ina Feeman, Peter Knight and Norman O’Reilly in the book, Leisure, Culture and the Olympic Games, edited by John Horne. Little wonder, that the best of artistic minds have often been relied upon by the organisers in designing a mascot.

The very first official Olympic mascot, Waldi, was created by Otl Aicher, an internationally acclaimed German graphic designer. Waldi, a multi-coloured dachshund, remains one of the prettiest Olympic mascots. The little dog proved a big money-spinner too, as over two million Waldi-related items were sold around the globe.

If the dachshund breed of dogs is so typical of Germany, beaver represents Canada. So, a beaver named Amik succeeded Waldi for the Montreal Olympics of 1976. It was after a national competition in Canada that the name Amik was picked for the black beaver.

Four years later, Misha, of course, took the world by storm. Misha’s full name, by the way, is Mikhail Potapych Toptygin. It was designed by renowned children’s illustrator Victor Chizhikov.

Misha is rated by many as the best-ever Olympic mascot. It is one teddy bear that every child will like to take home.

Misha’s successor, for Los Angeleos 1984, was created by Walt Disney Productions, for which C. Robert Moore designed the mascot. It was a bald eagle, the national animal and bird of the United States. Its name was Sam and it wore a hat with the design of the American flag.

For the Seoul Olympics of 1988, a tiger became the mascot. But it was a most friendly one called Hodori, that rather smiled endearingly than roared.

The dog came back as the mascot in 1992 for the Barcelona Olympics. Cobi, designed by multifaceted artist Javier Mariscal, was a humanised Pyrenean mountain dog. The organisers made good use of Cobi, who was featured in a television series and advertisements.

The mascot of Atlanta 1996 could not rival Cobi in popularity. Izzy, in fact, turned out to be one of the least popular of all the Olympic mascots. The organisers’ decision to use the first-ever computer-made character instead of an animal, which had been the practice for all the previous Olympics, seemed to have backfired.

In 2000, Sydney used not one, but three animals for its Olympics. The three animals were Syd, a duck-billed platypus, Olly, a kookaburra (and you thought it was a cricket ball and not a bird), and Millie, an echinda. The organisers had deliberately chosen these lesser-known animals, instead of kangaroos or koalas, which people would normally associate with Australia. Sydney also became the first Olympics to feature multiple mascots.

Athens retained that tradition in 2004, when the Olympics returned to its birthplace. The mascots were Athena and Phevos, two siblings named after two gods of Olympus in Greek mythology.

In 2008, the Olympics went to China, the world’s most populous country. The Beijing Olympics also had the highest number of mascots ever — five.

Four of them were animals: Beibei, a fish; Jingjing, a panda; Yingying, a Tibetan antelope; and Nini, a swallow. The fifth, Huanhuan, represents the Olympic spirit. Together they were called Fuwa, meaning good-luck dolls in Chinese. These lovely-looking dolls were designed by Chinese cartoonist Han Meilin, who was named UNESCO Artist for Peace last year.

Wenlock, the mascot of London 2012, was named after the English town of Much Wenlock, where the Wenlock Olympian Games were conducted in 1850; it was one of the inspirations for Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics. Wenlock, a one-eyed animated character, failed to catch the imagination the way the London Olympics did.

And now, it is time to say hello to Vinicius, the mascot for Rio 2016.Vinicius is a mix of different Brazilian animals and is named after Vinicius de Moraes, a widely respected Brazilian writer and musician.