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The story behind the plush pandas Olympians receive

The panda — which is given to medalists before they get their gold, silver or bronze — is a small version of the Beijing Olympics mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen.
Image: Figure Skating - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 6
Gold medalist Nathan Chen of Team USA, center; silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Team Japan, left; and bronze medalist Shoma Uno of Team Japan, right, celebrate during the men's single skating flower ceremony at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on Thursday.Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

As Olympic medalists ascend the podiums, fans might expect them to be given their gold, silver or bronze. But this year, winners are first given stuffed pandas. (Don’t worry — the athletes get their medals at a later ceremony.)

The stuffed animal is a small version of the 2022 Beijing Olympics mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, which is meant to bring “joy to those who participate in and watch the Olympic Winter Games,” according to the International Olympic Committee.

The name Bing means “ice” in Chinese, and it symbolizes purity and strength.

Image: Gold medalist Chloe Kim of Team USA poses on the podium during the venue ceremony
Gold medalist Chloe Kim of Team USA poses on the podium during the venue ceremony after the snowboard women's halfpipe final run during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Zhangjiakou, China, on Thursday.Ben Stanstall / AFP - Getty Images

The stuffed animal is encased in a clear plastic shell, which is said to represent ice. The heart on Bing Dwen Dwen’s left palm signifies China’s hospitality.

Bing Dwen Dwen became instantly popular among fans. People in China camped out overnight at the Olympics flagship store in Beijing, where lines stretched down the block, to buy their own version of the mascot. It quickly sold out.

Silver medalists Karen Chen and Nathan Chen after the team event in the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Monday in Beijing.David J. Phillip / AP

One fan even shaved Bing Dwen Dwen into the hair on the back of his head, according to Reuters.

The stuffed animal isn’t an entirely new tradition. Olympians have long received some kind of memento alongside their medals. Until recently, it was a bouquet of flowers. 

At the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016, medalists were given a small sculpture of the Games’ logo, which doubled as a medal-holder. 

Winners in Pyeongchang were seen holding a white tiger stuffed animal named Soohorang, the 2018 Olympics mascot. Medalists were given a doll of Soohorang wearing a gold, silver or bronze hat and a paper flower called an uhsahwa.