2012 mascot: Faster, higher, stronger, tackier

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The launch of the official mascot, Wenlock, for London's Olympic Games continues a strange and colourful tradition

In the run up to the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, leading German graphic designer Otto Aicher decided that his dachshund Waldi was capable of embodying the ethos of the event. As the Games' first official mascot, the dog had a lot to live up to. But Aicher believed that Waldi's pointed snout, fluorescent coat and straight back would epitomise the "gaiety" and "spirit" of the contest. The animal possessed characteristics coveted by all competitive athletes, such as resistance, tenacity and agility. Crucially, he would also be popular with children.

Aicher's hunch proved correct. Waldi was a commercial and public relations success, and organisers of major international sporting events have been seeking to emulate him ever since. Yesterday evening, when the 2012 Games' organising committee Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) unveiled the design which it hoped would sum up the spirit of its own event, it was a nerve-racking experience for all concerned. Not only did Locog's chairman, Sebastian Coe, hope to bury the memory of the Games' much-derided logo, unveiled in June 2007 (and subsequently compared to the cartoon character Lisa Simpson performing a sex act), he also had to convince the public that his long-awaited creatures were worthy successors to a veritable rogue's gallery of former Olympic mascots.

So he gave us Olympic mascot Wenlock and Mandeville, representing the Paralympics, which are "formed from two drops of steel from the girders, the steel framework, that go to make up the Olympic Stadium", as he told the Today programme yesterday.

One would have thought the task of creating a mascot for any of the Games would be simple. Pick an animal, give it some suitably anthropomorphic features, hire a guy to prance around in a costume, and clean up on the merchandising revenue. Instead, cast your eye along the police line-up of shifty-looking former lucky charms. Take Cobi, the divisive Picasso-influenced Catalan sheepdog installed to rouse support for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, or Ollie, Syd and Millie, the forgettable kookaburra, platypus and echidna (spiny anteater) of Sydney in 2000. It is as easy to alienate the public or fade into obscurity as it is to capture people's imagination.

"The key to a good mascot is creating something with instant character and personality," says Graham Hales, managing director of global branding consultancy Interbrand. "Whatever the message surrounding the Games, this is a means to personify it. It's a good vehicle to reach out to a new audience; it's all about inclusiveness and encouragement and taking part. This is an interesting opportunity to strike through the stereotypical image of a city. On the other hand you're looking for something that is easy to communicate".

Waldi introduced the world to Olympic mascot merchandising. He was available as a plastic toy, and appeared on buttons, posters, stickers and as a pin badge. Over two million Waldi-related items were sold around the world. Misha, the ursine star of the 1980 Moscow Olympics appeared in its own TV animated cartoon. The United States responded with a bald eagle dressed as Uncle Sam in 1984, called, imaginatively-enough, Sam. After the event the bird was still used to promote athletic events, such was its far-reaching penetration of the public consciousness.

Cubist sheepdog Cobi, however, was damned from its debut. When it was unveiled the president of the International Olympic Committee was a Catalan, Juan Antonio Samaranch. He expressed disapproval. Even its designer, the Barcelona-based Javier Mariscal was reported to have said at the time: "It is hard to fall in love at first sight with a dog that looks as if it has been run over by a heavy goods vehicle". But in the years between Cobi's launch and the sporting extravaganza itself, the canine managed to win over the public. Now Mariscal remembers the experience with fondness.

"It was important for us to show that world that we weren't this lazy nation that couldn't organise a big event," says Mariscal, speaking from his Barcelona office. "But it was also pivotal that we displayed our propensity for fun. We have the Mediterranean, the sun, the atmosphere here – it was important to sell it to others. It was vital to show that, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, there was still something that could bring people together."

But Cobi's success has since been overshadowed. The biggest mascot blooper was undoubtedly Izzy, who cheered on the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Conceived by John Ryan, a senior animation director of Atlanta-based design firm DESIGNefx, the character was first introduced to the public at the closing ceremony of the Barcelona Games. Izzy was the first computer-generated Olympic mascot and could morph into different forms. It was a departure from the norm in it was not a nationally-significant animal or person (Aicher was aware that dachshunds are very popular in Bavaria, for example). Initially appearing as an amorphous "blob", Izzy was remodelled to become more appealing to children. That didn't stop Simpsons creator Matt Groening describing it as "a bad marriage of the Pillsbury doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin". Other sections of the US press called it a "blue slug" or "sperm in sneakers".

Ryan is still defending his character decades after the event. "It was very effective for kids, we got a lot of interesting flak from adults," he told the BBC in 2008. "Journalists were ripping the mascot and making it stand for everything that was wrong with the city, even potholes. It was a bad reaction and a lot of bad blood. To this day it will still show up in the press as the much-reviled 1996 mascot." Even still, merchandising sales managed to reach $250m (though the Games totalled a sobering $1.8bn).

The London mascots, whose "back-story" was cooked up by children's author Michael Morpurgo, was ultimately approved by an internal Locog committee, presumably one that included Coe. It is hoped that London's mascot will become a central part of Locog's commercial strategy – if the public take to it, of course. London 2012's organisers will make money from selling goods which carry the graffiti-inspired £400,000 logo and mascot design. Separate merchandising companies will also pay Olympics organisers six to seven per cent of their sales in royalties for the rights to use the logo and mascot's image on their products. Locog hopes to raised around £70m in this way, although it is still unclear whether the money will be pumped back into the £2bn cost of organising the Olympics, or will be donated to charity. As well getting children involved with the experience, Locog hopes the mascot will remind people of the Games' approach and exemplify their spirit.

After the furore surrounding the Olympic logo, playing it safe is clearly the best strategy for Britain's Olympic organisers.

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