The five friendlies are an incredible little family carefully chosen by Beijing 2008 to represent all of China to carry a message of friendship to the children of the world.
So said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge over the weekend in a statement that was read at a nationally televised gala at a Beijing sports arena to mark the 1,000-day countdown until the Games.
With that usual Chinese flair for combining numeration and words that sound like they should have no plural in English, Beijing announced its mascot(s) for the 2008 Olympics, “The Five Friendlies.”
Reading the story got me curious about past Olympic mascots, so I set out to do a little research on the topic.
The tradition of selecting a mascot for the games began in 1968 with the Winter Olympics held in Grenoble. The first mascot was Schuss, and was a figure with a large round head crouched down on a pair of skis. Schuss was followed four years later by Waldi, the first official mascot, which was a multicolored Dachshund chosen to represent Munich in the 1972 Winter Games.
Since then, every host county has chosen a mascot that more or less symbolized some representative aspect of local culture or that was symbolic of the games themselves. Los Angeles had Sam the Eagle in 1984, Moscow had Misha the Bear in 1980, and Montreal had Amik the Beaver in 1976. At least three of Waldi’s colors were official Olympic colors, and Japan chose four mascots to symbolize the four years between the games. (The one possible exception, which I like to tell myself is no symbolic reflection on U.S. culture, is Izzy, the cosmic nightmare that Atlanta dreamed up for the 1996 Summer Games.)
So now we add to those ranks The Five Friendlies. But what of their symbolism? Apart from the obvious meanings (e.g. Panda, the Tibeten Antelope, etc…), are their names – Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying, and Ni Ni. Perceptive readers with a some knowledge of the Chinese language will recognize that taking the first syllable of each name yields the phrase, 北京欢迎你, or “Beijing welcomes you.”
This is not the first attempt at such punnery. The Japanese chose as their mascots for the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, the Snowlets, four owls with the names, Lekki, Tsukki, Sukki, and Nokki. Taking the first syllable of each of their names produces the wonderfully Japanese phrase, レッツ・スノー, which rendered into English is, “Let’s Snow,” something that makes sense (even in English) only to Japanese or to gaijin who spent time in country (and even then, the verbal usage of “let’s” as a verb can prove confusing for foreigners.)
These choices reminded me of something an undergraduate history professor of mine once said about the Japanese and Chinese languages. He told our class that the first thing a Chinese teacher does is to give every student a Chinese name in Chinese characters. From then on, that is your name when you are speaking Chinese. The Japanese not only don’t give anyone a Japanese name, but they have an entirely separate phonetic system to express the Japanese version of foreign names.
Those readers who have spent time in either of these countries probably already see what he was getting at, but it has to do with the degree of inclusiveness of each culture. And at the risk of sounding too culturally deterministic, I think there is something similar to be said about the choice of mascots by these two countries. Japan’s Snowlets were clearly meant for a domestic audience, which is fair enough. After all, Japan was hosting the games. But their attempt at linguistically and symbolically reaching out pales in comparison to the Chinese effort. (It also shows one of the things Japan does best these days – cuteness.) While I’m sure China no doubt hopes the Five Friendlies will be a hit domestically, everything from the choice of the word “friendly” to the welcoming pun formed from their name indicates the kind of message Beijing hopes to send to the world.
China’s choice also says something about the degree to which its “peaceful rise” diplomacy has been incorporated in creative and non-traditional ways into popular culture. Whether one buys into the message or not, one can’t accuse the Chinese of not trying.
That said, their efforts proved vain in winning my heart for the best Olympic mascot ever, which hands down goes to the unofficial mascot of the Sydney Games…
…Fatso, the fat-arsed wombat.