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Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying, Ni Ni may spell out gold for Beijing Games organizers

Every Olympic Games needs them. They attract attention, generate revenue, add color and make it fun for children. Athletes? Opening ceremonies? New stadiums? Sponsors? No. Mascots. Last year’s Olympics in Athens may have been a return to the birthplace of the ancient Games but the modern phenomenon of the official Olympic mascot, which began in 1972, is inescapable. Naturally, Beijing is joining in the fun. So, with the fanfare one would expect and exactly 1,000 days before the 2008 Games are due to begin in China, Beijing’s mascots were revealed last Friday. This being the new, improved «we can do anything you can do but better» China, the Communist Party Politburo members unveiled not one mascot but five – a new Olympic record before the Games have even begun. They are based on animals and go by the names of Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying and Ni Ni. Apparently when you put all that together, it spells «Beijing welcomes you.» Almost everything imaginable has already been done in the world of mascots but spelling words is certainly a first, and the Chinese deserve a collective gold medal for their originality. Measuring success A successful mascot has to have broad shoulders, figuratively speaking, because apart from being a merchandising money-spinner, it is a universally recognizable symbol of the host city’s identity. «Mascots capture the spirit of the host city and convey the message of what it’s trying to show the world,» Brad Copeland, president of Iconologic design company in Atlanta, told Kathimerini English Edition. He has been working as an adviser to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the «Look of the Games» since the 1996 Olympics. «Mascots become ambassadors of the Games and they link Olympic ideals with the values of the host city,» Copeland adds. Visitors to Athens were greeted by a pair of mascots: Athena and her brother Phevos. These yellow figures with short arms and chunky triangular feet which looked like pieces of Swiss chocolate perplexed many. In fact, when Athena and Phevos were first unveiled critics complained they had more in common with Homer Simpson than Homer. But breaking with the past can be quite beneficial for mascots. Having the weight of Ancient Greece lifted from their shoulders, Athena and Phevos went on to have a rather impressive Olympics, taking $201 million in sales and becoming household names from Athens to Alexandroupolis. Greek schoolchildren still stuff their lunches into Athena and Phevos backpacks. The brother-and-sister pairing also did their effort to lighten the load of the most expensive Games in history since host cities keep 10 to 15 percent of the royalties from the sale of mascots and the relevant licensed products. «Athens did the best job of merchandising the mascots,» Copeland says. «It always comes down to what you do with the mascots. We are trying to integrate the mascots into the Games, just like in Athens, where all the elements worked well together.» Being popular, Athena and Phevos can take to the after-dinner speaking circuit for mascots, knowing they did very well for themselves because the history of the Olympic mascots tells us that success is often hard to come by and there is an intangible quality to what makes a mascot popular. A perfect example is Cobi, the Barcelona 1992 mascot which was designed by local cartoonist Javier Mariscal. The surreal, smiling dog was not loved instantly, and it was only at the end of the Games that he was no longer in danger of becoming a stray in the Olympic Village. «The mascots that have been most successful have been the ones you would least expect,» says Copeland. He says that few mascots are instant hits and that if you get a 50 percent approval rate, then you are doing very well. «Cobi reflected a certain part of Spanish culture and was designed by a creative genius,» Copeland adds. «When Barcelona said goodbye to Cobi as he floated away in a balloon, it was one of the saddest moments of the Games.» Sydney 2000 went for security in numbers by giving the world Ollie the kookaburra, Syd the platypus and Millie the echidna. Despite the fact that non-Antipodeans did not know these animals even existed, the Sydney trio actually pipped Athena and Phevos in terms of sales. They amassed a record $213 million. But then again, there were three of them to share the workload. Syd, Olli and Millie certainly scored high in the originality stakes although Waldi, the multicolored dachshund from Munich 1972, gives them a good run for their money. Athena and Phevos’s design was based on the human form for the first time in the history of Olympic mascots. The Chinese have obviously dismissed this as an eccentricity and looked to the animal world for their inspiration. The Beijing mascots are cartoon renditions of a panda, a carp, a Tibetan antelope, a swallow and the Olympic flame. Each one has the color of one of the Olympic rings. Poor old Waldi had to display all the colors on his own. The name of a mascot can also have a big impact on how it is relieved. Athens turned to its roots as Athena took the name of the ancient goddess of wisdom and Phevos was given one of the many names for Apollo, god of light and music. Other host cities have also relied on their traditions when naming their mascots. Amik the beaver of Montreal 1976, for instance, derived its name from native Indian, while Misha the bear of Moscow 1980 was so proud of his heritage that he boasted the full name of Mikhail Potapych Toptygin. When so much is made of women being able to compete with men on the field, it is only natural that mascots should reflect this off the field. Despite their animal roots, two of the Beijing mascots are also designed to look like boys and another two like girls. The fifth looks like a panda. By representing both sexes, Beijing is picking up where Athens left off and hopefully with more success than the previous effort to raise the standard for mascot equality, during Seoul 1988. The South Koreans gave the world Hodori the tiger but he was meant to have a female partner called Hosuni. For some reason she was rarely seen during the games. Reports that she can now be found in a mascot retirement home sipping gin and feeling very bitter have not been confirmed. Beijing has also made an attempt to make every part of China feel part of the Games through the mascots – the Tibetan antelope and the panda can be found in the poorer western provinces of the country. «The mascots connect the four corners of China. It is very inclusive, like having male and female mascots,» says Copeland. Tibetan campaigners have not been impressed by the gesture. Unpredictability The Beijing mascots, like Athena and Phevos, are certainly not predictable. The undisputed winner of that title was Sam the eagle of Los Angeles 1984 who was designed with the help of the Walt Disney studios. US officials tried to make up for it at Atlanta 1996. But if there ever was a case of failing by trying too hard then Izzy the «amorphous abstract fantasy figure» was it. That his name derived from «Whatizit?» should tell you all you need to know. He evolved in the buildup to the Games, sprouting a nose and bulking up generally – and not a doping test in sight. There were not too many children that wanted to cuddle up with Izzy at night and that is eventually the benchmark of all mascots. If the children like them then Olympic glory is assured because the cash tills will ring out louder than a cheering stadium. «Izzy just never made the connection. It had no cultural relevance so nobody in Atlanta could claim it as their own,» says Copeland, clarifying that he did not have anything to do with the design. Beijing officials said they expect sales of their mascots to break all previous records. With a domestic market of 1.3 billion people, they should have a good chance. So, in 1,000 days, Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying and Ni Ni could be lining up take their place on the mascot podium but the question is: Will they all fit?