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Fun or frightening? A brief history of Olympic mascot design

Updated 9th February 2022
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Fun or frightening? A brief history of Olympic mascot design
Written by Leah Dolan, CNN
For more than fifty years, athletes competing in the Olympic games have often been cheered on by either a furry, feathered or slimy friend. The Olympic mascot -- a cartoonish encapsulation of the host city's culture and history -- is so important, designs are often selected and finalized years before the Games take place.
According to the International Olympic Committee, the role of these quirky caricatures is to help spread a "festive atmosphere" and embody the exuberant spirit of the event.
Over the decades, the world has welcomed snowmen, sasquatches, cowboy-hat-wearing bears and aliens to the Olympic stage. The first mascot was created in 1968 by designer Aline Lafargue for the Grenoble Winter Games in France. Affectionately named "Shuss," the character consists of a two-toned head and lightning-bolt shaped leg attached to skis. Despite holding the esteemed title of first ever mascot, Lafargue created and submitted her design for Shuss in just one night.
To find a worthy representative, each host country will typically organize a submission call-out or contest. In 2014, a competition held by Russia in anticipation for the Sochi Winter Games received more than 24,000 drawings. The winners, a trio of arctic mammals intended to represent the three spots on the Olympic podium, were selected by a public vote with the results broadcast on Russian TV. But this hasn't always been the case: for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, one of the first Olympic events to be heavily subsidized by corporate financing, Disney won the private bid for mascot design.
Since these creatures are also pivotal to official merchandise, cute and cuddly have long been key metrics for any mascot's success. Merchandise of Beijing's rotund panda mascot Bing Dwen Dwen for this month's 2022 Winter Games is already "selling like hotcakes," while Disney's bald eagle, Sam, was meticulously constructed to appear short, stubby and soft as opposed to realistic, pointed and ominous in order to appeal to children. And when illustrators have deviated, viewers have let them know. Ten years ago, Iris design agency produced two silver cyclops extra-terrestrials to usher in the London Games. "If these things had been in a '50's horror movie it would now be considered a classic," wrote one CNN reader in 2012.
Character design becomes especially important when the Games coincide with a unique moment in history. For example Sydney, Australia, the host country of the first Olympics of the millennium, commissioned three mascots for the first time in the Games' history. The three anime-style cartoons, Syd, Olly and Millie, were named in reference to Sydney, Olympics and Millennium -- and t-shirts from this landmark Games are still circulating second-hand resale sites now.