Leopard, bear and hare presiding over the Sochi Olympics

Olympic mascots are not just cartoon characters. They are a message sent by the host country to the whole world. What makes the Sochi mascots stand out from the crowd? RBTH has talked to designers and experts to find out.

The Sochi-2014 mascots. Source: PhotoXPress

Dmitry Romendik, RBTH

Several proposed mascots for the Sochi Olympics were put to the vote among Sochi residents in 2008. A skiing dolphin created by Olga Belyaeva, an artist from Yaroslavl, proved the voting public’s favorite.

But the Games’ organizers decided to postpone the decision, and held another competition in 2010, inviting the entire Russian public to vote. New mascots were submitted by professional designers as well as amateurs. The turnout was very high, and included the Russian Internet audience. 

The 2010 short list included Father Frost (the Russian equivalent of Father Christmas), a brown bear and a white bear, a leopard, a hare, a sun symbol, a fiery boy, a snow girl, a bullfinch, matryushka dolls, and a dolphin.

Shortly before the final vote, Father Frost was disqualified by the jury, because the rights to Olympic mascots are owned by the International Olympic Committee, and since Father Frost is Russia's main New Year’s symbol, the country did not want to give away the rights to that symbol to the IOC.

In the end, a televised vote in February 2011 produced three winners: a leopard, a white bear, and a hare. A ray of sunlight and a snowflake were chosen as mascots for the Paralympics.

A kindly bear from the 1980 Games

The question on many people’s minds was, why so many different mascots? After all, the mission of the Olympic Games is to bring together, not divide. At least that’s according to Viktor Chizhikov, a children’s book illustrator and the creator of Misha the bear cub, the mascot of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

The symbol of the Moscow Olympics, Misha the bear, flew out with balloons into Moscow’s night sky. Source: Sergey Guneev  / RIA Novosti

The Soviet government announced a public competition for the best mascot design ahead of the Olympics in 1977, but the event failed to produce good results. The government then invited artists and book illustrators to do the job.

Chizhikov’s Mishka won the favor of the IOC chairman and was approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. "Previously, the Russian bear had an invariably bad reputation,” Chizhikov said. “But thanks to my Mishka, attitudes to that symbol of Russia started to change."

The designer said he believes that symbols and mascots must not only reflect the nature of the event, but also send some positive signals about the host country to the wider world. In that sense, having a large number of different mascots only blurs the message and defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

There are, of course, precedents of more than one mascot being used for the Games. The 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City had a hare, a coyote, and a bear as mascots, and several other games had two animals at a time.

"Well, at least they have chosen animals,” Chizhikov said. "With animals, it is much easier to convey some emotions, which is extremely important."

As an example of how things can go wrong with mascots, he used the example of the symbols of the London 2012 Games, Wenlock and Mandeville, two animated drops of steel made at a steel mill in Bolton.

They have their own backstory, which claims that they were formed from the last girder of the Olympic stadium. But they are completely faceless. They have a single blob at the center of the place where their faces are supposed to be, and therefore do not convey emotions.

Animals, on the other hand, can be made anthropomorphic; in other words, they can be given human-like facial expressions to convey a range of emotions, Chizhikov said.

Between showmanship and ideology

Various experts have different opinions about the Sochi mascots. Some of the people RBTH spoke to like them a lot; others said they believed there is definite room for improvement.

Erken Kaganov, a well-known Russian designer, said the visual style of the symbols chosen for the Sochi Games is too eclectic.

"They have used some good-looking solutions, such as the patchwork pattern. But this is combined with low-quality posters, mediocre iconography, and a logo based on several fonts," the designer explained.

“On top of that, they have a motley of several different mascots. It feels as though the creative team did not have an art director - or that they had several, each with their own different ideas."

Anna Novikova, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, disagreed with Kaganov, saying she believed that in terms of the visual style of its symbols, the Sochi Olympics will be no worse than the previous Games.

Dr. Novikova researches the Olympic Games as a social and cultural phenomenon, so she tried to take a broader view of the event.

"Each mascot has its own distinct character, and this is well in line with the general international fascination with storytelling," she said. “But I think the Sochi symbols lack a certain sense of self-deprecating humor. They do not have any internal conflict that would provide the creative space for interpretation. Our mascots are too glossy and perfect."

Comparing the Sochi Games with the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Dr. Novikova said that back in those days, state ideology permeated the symbols and style of all public events.

These days, however, the Games organizers are struggling with two conflicting urges. On the one hand, they want the Sochi Olympics to be a glittering and entertaining show.

But on the other, they are, in a sense, on a warpath, trying to prove it to the whole world that Russia is a strong and developed nation.

It seems we’ll just have to wait until the opening of the Olympics to see where the leopard, the white bear and the hare take us.

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