As the Games of the 30th Olympiad draw toward their close, there's been a lot of history, hype, and heartbreak, just as there is in every Summer Olympics.
But mostly there's been supremely god-awful official mascots. This time and the last time, and the time before that.
The modern Olympics got cranking in 1896 in Athens, cooked up by Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman who figured his country could better avenge its ass-whupping in the Franco-Prussian War on playing fields rather than battlefields. Sadly, the worst was still ahead for France and the rest of us when it came to war.
And mascots, too. The first official mascot for a Summer Games was unleashed at the 1972 Munich Games, which were conceived as a way of erasing the grim memories of the 1936 Berlin Games, which Hitler conceived as a showcase for his demented (and demonstrably false) version of homo superior. "Waldi" was a cartoon dachsund, about the only German-affiliated breed with no known Nazi or secret-police connotations (though they are given to wearing Kaiser helmets). If you don't remember Waldi, don't feel bad. He—and the Games he represented—featured incredible performances (such as Mark Spitz's seven swimming golds) but everything was overshadowed by the horrific murder of Israeli athletes by terrorists (an event whose 40th anniversary was ignored at this year's event).
Other Olympic mascots are best forgotten, though for less-disturbing reasons. The other mascots are not associated with tragedy as much as they embody it. Design by committee is never a good idea and when it comes to Olympic mascots, it seems like no idea is so bad that it can't be made even more rotten—and then dipped in multiple coats of WTF lacquer. Here's the five worst mascots of the Summer Games.
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5. Amik the Beaver, the mascot of the 1976 Games in Montreal.
Some 20 African nations boycotted that Olympics due to the inclusion of New Zealand athletes after Kiwi rugby teams had toured apartheid South Africa, which was forbidden from participating in the Games. That rugby wasn't an Olympic sport makes the African nations' argument hard to follow, but it was the '70s and everyone (especially Canadian First Lady Margaret Trudeau) was doing lots of drugs, so who can say what did or didn't make sense?
Speaking of drugs, scientists have yet to synthesize anything that can make Amik the Beaver look like anything other than a colostomy bag. His failure to win hearts and minds of Olympic fans mirrored the Games' failure to return on the huge gobs of Canadian dollars spent on the competition. Costs rose from around $100 million to over $1.5 billion (CDN) and Montreal spent some two decades paying off the tab for hosting the Olympics. All those remaindered plush toy versions of Amik the Beaver didn't help the bottom line.
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4. Izzy, the mascot of the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Bomb attacks couldn't stop the 1996 Atlanta Games. Neither could the competition's sad-sack mascot "Izzy," technically known as "Whatizit" and colloquially known as "Whatthefuckizit" and "The Sperm in Sneakers."
Supposedly, 20 design firms competed to create the mascot for Atlanta and it's a testament to early 1990s slacker culture that Izzy came out on top. It made its debut at the end of the 1992 Barcelona Games and the reception was so negative that Atlanta's organizers ripped out the bottom row of teeth in Izzy 1.0 and gave him "longer limbs to give a more athletic look" according to Wikipedia.
Sometimes you go to athletic competitions with the mascots you've got. And other times you kick his teeth out, stretch his arms, and slap some sneakers on him. And you still lose.
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3. Olly, Syd, and Millie, mascots of the 2000 Sydney Games.
The organizers of the 2000 Sydney Games realized that nobody could top Izzy in a one-on-one competition. So they instead drank 1,000 Imperial gallons of Foster's and created an unholy trinity of mascots: A kookabura named Ollie (why not?) who represents the Olympics' spirit of generosity(?); a duckbilled platypus named Syd (as in Sydney) who represents the environment (??); and an echidna called Millie (as in Millenium Games) who represented the year 2000 (???). It's not just toilets that flush backwards in Australia, mates. Even free association doesn't make sense Down Under.
How bad were Olly, Syd, and Millie? Worse than a Paul Hogan film festival or a Mel Gibson beer run. People in Sydney instead embraced Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat, an unofficial mascot who made up in crowd-love what it lacked in sponsorship.
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2. Phevos and Athena, mascots of the 2004 Athens Games.
The Greeks may not know how to balance a checkbook or work past the age of 50, but they do know tragedy. And that's pretty much what they dished up with Phevos and Athena, the most disturbing brother-sister act since The Carpenters. Named for the gods Apollo and Athena, these funnel-shaped, stoma-rocking blobs were anything but divine. Even the usually unflappable Bob Costas was unnerved, denouncing the pair as "a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong."
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1. Wenlock and Mandeville, mascots of the 2012 London Games.
If British organizers felt a need to wrangle a couple of ambulatory penis-shaped entertainers with attitude, couldn't they have just done what the English have been doing for centuries? That is, couldn't they have just raided Ireland and kidnapped the song-and-dance duo Jedward, an act so awful that they have kickstarted the drive for retroactive reproductive choice on the Emerald Island?
Semioticians note that cycloptic eyes of Wenlock and Mandeville bear a disturbing resemblance to the ubiquitous closed-circuit TV cameras that are everywhere in old Blighty. But the real offense is not in representing the surveillance state while wearing what appear to be crotchless chaps but in failing to do justice to a nation that has at least a passing acquaintanceship with aesthetic success.
"With this country's artistic heritage," opined Ewan McGregor, "this one eyed joke made me sad."
But maybe that's the real function of Olympic mascots after all: Amidst the human perfection and striving represented by a two-week-long competition among the world's greatest athletes, mascots such as Wenlock and Mandeville, Amik the Beaver, Whatzit, and the too-terrifying-to-mention Fuwa bring us all back down to Earth. The mascots of past Games and, one suspects, their yet-to-be born brethren of future Olympics, drive home the fact that however far we run and high we jump, we will, just like Olly, Syd, and Millie—and even Fatso!—fail completely in our quest to make something more of our efforts than abject, humiliating failure. If Olympic athletes remind me us of the best that we might be (especially when it comes to cheating on drug tests), then Olympic mascots function as a memento mori, a remembrance that we will die. And look bad doing it.