A few weeks ago, amid the pollution- and Zika-filled media run-up to Rio, a press release issued by the Olympic organizing committee for PyeongChang, Korea (where the 2018 Winter Olympics will take place) received little notice. The single-page communiqué carried news about a white striped tiger named Soohorang. Rendered with computer graphics, the creature wore a cheesy grin and posed like a track star. Soohorang, you see, had just been chosen as the next official Olympics mascot.
The practice of choosing a creature to represent each Olympics is now in its 44th year. It’s a job that falls to the host city’s organizing committee, which frequently relies on marketing research to create the mascot and public surveys to choose one, with final approval resting with the International Olympic Committee. While some mascots are human (children, usually), most have been animals (bears, raccoons, owls, etc.) And with the advent of CGI, several mascots have fallen into what’s generously termed the fantasy-creature category.
But whatever the breed of the mascot, most have shared one thing in common: They’re a little—and sometimes very—freaky. ("Loony," to quote Time magazine, or "downright scary" in the appraisal of ESPN.)
The most obvious explanation is that Olympic mascots are created by a committee—and you know how that too-many-cooks adage goes. Another complication is that an Olympic mascot has to do the double duty of embodying both the idealistic competitive principles of the games while also signifying the unique cultural attributes of the host country and city. It's why we’ve seen a given country’s beloved local creature dressed up in athletic attire and wearing the Olympic rings.
But according to Alan Behr, an intellectual property attorney with the New York firm of Phillips Nizer, the central problem is that Olympic mascots have to resonate with audiences both locally and globally.
“You have to come up with a character that works everywhere, and it can’t have a name that means the wrong thing in some language,” he said. “You need a mascot that will work in both North and South Korea—and in Albania, Cuba and the People’s Republic of China.”
The mandate of piling on multiple layers of symbolism onto a creature that must be clever, appealing and nationalistic without being offensive is a tall order. It means, Behr added, "that you need the lowest common denominator," which frequently results in "fuzzy sweet things that can't offend anybody."
It also means, as the examples here show, some pretty bizarre outcomes.