Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Face of the Games

As you read this, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver are in full swing. Even if you've only watched a smattering of the coverage, odds are you have seen a variety of events and medal ceremonies, as well as numerous stories about Vancouver and its restaurants and attractions. And you've probably also seen many historical comparisons, and how this year's crop of athletes matches up against the iconic names of the past, such as Dorothy Hamill, Jean-Claude Killy and Eric Heiden.

Still, with all the focus on Lindsey Vonn and her shin, Shaun White and his hair, and Johnny Weir and his feathers, there are three other personalities you might have missed. They've been there all along, though they generally work the periphery of the events. Not competing per se, they are none the less the most public representation of the games and what the host country has to offer. So take a moment to learn about Miga, Sumi and Quatchi, the mascots of the 2010 Olympic Games.

Resembling high-concept Nickelodeon cartoon characters, the three are based on Canadian animals and mythological figures. According to their official bios (yes, someone was actually tasked with creating backstories), each has a very primary connection to the environs. Miga is a "young sea bear who lives in the ocean with her family pod near Tofino, British Columbia, and is part Kermode bear, a rare white bear that only lives in BC." She likes salmon, and her goal is to "land a corked 720 in the half-pipe." Sumi has the "hat of the orca whale, flies with the wings of the mighty thunderbird and runs on the strong furry legs of the black bear." His hobbies include Alpine skiing, and he likes hot cocoa. And Quatchi is a "young sasquatch who comes from the mysterious forests of Canada." A hockey fanatic, he also likes travel photography... ironic, since there's never been a good picture of any of his relatives.

Backgrounds aside, they're a cute and cuddly group. They appear all around the Olympic venues, as well as in the numerous gift shops on everything from hats to coffee mugs. But in the same vein that skier Bode Miller will be compared to superstar Alberto Tomba, it's fair to ask how these three stack up against mascots from past games. Have technology, training and national drive created a better furry beast than we've seen in the past?

At the very least, they represent a quantum leap from Schuss, the very first unofficial winter games mascot from the 1968 Grenoble games. He/She/It was supposed to be a skier, but was described by some as "a giant tadpole balanced on an ice skate." Unfortunately, there was nothing cute, cuddly or even vaguely appealing about Schuss, who had a giant red head that some thought looked infected.

And few would doubt that they are better than Whatizit, who was the representation the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Izzy, as he was known to his friends, had lightning bolt eyebrows, big red shoes and a ringed multi-colored tail. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games gave him makeovers, but the damage was done. Bob Costas of NBC called the mascot "a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong."

Compare that with the icon of the 1992 Barcelona Games, Cobi. In spite of his overly-wrought description as "a Catalan sheepdog designed in the cubist style inspired by the interpretations of Picasso of Velázquez' masterpiece 'Las Meninas,'" he proved to be extremely popular. Cobi, whose name derived from the acronym of the Spanish initials of the Barcelona Olympic Committee, was used in commercials by Coke and others, and even had his own TV show for a time.

But the acknowledged king of the mascot hill is the one of which Americans saw the least. Misha was the embodiment of the 1980 Moscow Games, the Olympics we and 64 other countries boycotted as a protest over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He was a classic Teddy Bear, which nicely coincided with the animal which had become the personification of Russia since Tsarist times. But rather than being big and brutal, he was small and adorable, sporting big ears and a rainbow belt and buckle made of the five Olympic Rings. Had the boycott not have happened, he would have generated worldwide ancillary sales which could have rivaled Harry Potter.

How will Miga, Quatchi and Sumi be remembered? Will they be like Neve and Glitz, the Gumby-esque representatives from Torino just 4 years ago, who are all but lost to history? Or will they be thought of fondly like Vuko, the wolf from Sarajevo in 1984, who gained fame as a distant cousin of Wiley E. Coyote? Only time will tell. As they say in all of sport, that's why they play the game.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes the events, but has already started turning down the sound to lose the announcers. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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