When the doll-like Fuwa mascots for this year’s Summer Olympics in Beijing were unveiled in 2005, parents everywhere had to breathe a sigh of relief. While just about any symbol connected to an Olympics in communist China is going to draw controversy, at least these figures wouldn’t give the world’s children four years worth of nightmares.
Several mascots over the years have been pleasing to the eye, but many more have been ugly, confusing and downright creepy. The mascot choices have been so strange over the years that Waldi, the rainbow-shaded dachshund who represented the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, seems almost conservative by comparison.
Below are our picks for the five best and five worst Olympic Games mascots of all time. The choices are based purely on looks (politics were not taken into account).
The Best …
5. The Snowlets (1998 Winter Games, Nagano)
Never mind that these four owls look as if they were created in about 12 minutes by an 8-year-old with some construction paper and scissors. These are the only mascots in Olympic history that would look OK as a Radiohead album cover. The abstract vibe works for the happy little Snowlets, who manage to look as weird as many of the mascots on our loser list without seeming scary.
4. The Fuwa (2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing)
These five mascots may have oppression and human rights violations in their hearts, but they couldn’t look more friendly and harmless. The cartoonish and cuddly figures have received their share of ridicule, but in the age of YouTube and Photoshop it’s impossible to imagine any new Olympics mascots emerging unscathed. Bonus kitsch points: one of the Fuwa has an Olympic flame theme, and looks kind of like the Heat Miser from “A Year Without Santa Claus.”
3. Hodori (1988 Summer Games, Seoul)
We haven’t figured out why this mascot has a toilet plunger on his head, but the smiling tiger is a reliable symbol – whether you’re trying to sell Frosted Flakes or promote an Olympic Games. There was also a female tiger named Hosuni, but the pair had a Bruce Springsteen/Patti Scialfa thing going, with Hodori handling the bulk of the promotional heavy lifting.
2. Cobi (1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona)
The concept of a Cubist sheepdog has “mascot blunder” written all over it. But Cobi actually turned out to be pretty cute, in a Matt Groening “Life in Hell” kind of way. The fact that Cobi was occasionally presented as buck naked except for an Olympic tattoo on his navel only made him more popular with the alt-rock crowd. He even had his own TV show.
1. Misha (1980 Summer Olympics, Moscow)
The United States missed out on more than Olympic glory when they led the boycott of the 1980 games. They also didn’t get to meet the best mascot of all time. Misha looked like a classic Teddy bear, more likely to give a big hug than maul you. His rainbow belt and giant gold Olympic rings buckle looked like something that wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka might wear. Misha never defected, but he was proof that the Russians loved their children, too.
The Worst …
5. Schuss (1968 Winter Olympics, Grenoble)
Looking like he was whittled out of a bar of soap by a prison inmate, this first-ever Olympic mascot was a bellwether for bad mascots to come. He was supposed to be a skier but looked instead like a giant tadpole balanced on an ice skate. There was nothing cute, cuddly or vaguely appealing about the Schuss, whose giant red head looked infected. He looked more like a bookend than a mascot.
4. Magique (1992 Winter Olympics, Albertville)
Looking a bit like Maggie Simpson when she’s bundled up for cold weather, the Magique appeared to be human, but had no nose, ears, hands or feet. The conehead didn’t help this snow imp look any more intelligent, and the figure’s obesity didn’t make him much of a symbol for athletic competition. If you were lucky enough to get a plastic one, it made a nice throwing star. Otherwise, the Magique was pretty much useless.
3. Neve and Gliz (2006 Winter Olympics, Torino)
The lack of opposable thumbs was the least of the problems for these mascots, which featured the disturbing combination of snow ball and ice cube heads on Gumby-like bodies. Neve, the female mascot, resembled one of the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” aliens — and she was the looker of the pair. Gliz looked like a really pale bald guy who was trying to swallow a 46-inch television set. Let’s hope they never reproduce.
2. Athena and Phevos (2004 Summer Games, Athens)
Starting in the year 2004, artists seemed to abandon altogether the concept of creating something pleasing to children, and went instead for nightmare-inducing themes instead. Athena and Phevos were mumu-wearing no-necked flipper-armed deformities whose feet were so gout-ridden that they were forced to go barefoot. They were supposed to look like ancient dolls, but many Greeks found the figures stereotyping and degrading. A huge high-profile mascot failure.
1. Whatizit (1996 Summer Olympics, Atlanta)
With his lightning bolt eyebrows, big red shoes, Donny Osmond teeth and ringed multi-colored tail, Izzy appeared to have been designed by a team of kids with attention deficit disorder. His blobby body seemed to promote a sedentary lifestyle, not a the elite athletic competition that the Olympic Games represented. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games gave Izzy makeovers, but the damage was done. Bob Costas called the mascot “a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong.”
Peter Hartlaub is the pop culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle