The symbolism behind Olympic mascots

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.

6 thoughts on “The symbolism behind Olympic mascots”

  1. Great post! I had been wondering about those five mascots since I first saw them. I like that little pun their names make, but I disagree that it, or the difference in foreign naming customs, represents anything about the inclusiveness of either culture. I believe it has everything to do with the languages themselves.

    First of all, it’s tough to argue that a pun which spells out the phrase, “bei jing huan ying ni” is ANY more easily understood by non-Chinese than one that spells out “レッツスノー” is to non-Japanese. I mean, I’m pretty well versed in Chinese characters by virtue of my Japanese study, and the Chinese pun made absolutely no sense to me. If it makes no sense to me, then to which non-Chinese, never-been-to-China people will it make sense?

    But my main point is this: Japanese has katakana, and Chinese does not, which I think explains the naming differences. Look at “America.” The Japanese can write it “アメリカ” or “米国,” the second being similar to the way the Chinese came up with their name for America. The katakana term, アメリカ is less confusing, more accurate and more respectful of the name that Americans themselves apply to their homeland. It is also more common in everyday Japanese. With katakana, the Japanese at least TRY to get those foreign names right, if sometimes they fail miserably (but it must be pointed out that the Japanese katakana system is great for helping people pronounce places they’re not sure about. For example, I was wondering exactly how to pronounce Brugges, and Bruxelles, the other day on my trip to Belgium, and while visiting a Belgian tourist shop, it was the Japanese guide book I saw, not the Spanish, English, or French ones, and certainly not the Chinese, that cleared up all the pronounciations perfectly…but that’s not terribly relevant). It also represents a certain willingness by the Japanese to alter their own language to respectfully incorporate new words. However you may interpret it, it’s simply a matter of Japanese taking advantage of the convenience of a writing system that had existed well before foreigners began turning up on their shores.

    The bottom line is, the Japanese, like the Chinese, already have enough ways built into their culture and language to exclude outsiders. They don’t need to do so by foisting foreign-sounding names on foreign things. They can do that simply because they have katakana. So why change my name, アンドリュウ, to something like 太郎, for no good reason? アンドリュウ, like アメリカ, and レッツスノー, does just fine.

  2. Before it became unfashionable, Japan wrote foreign names in much the same way as China. Before アメリカ they wrote America as 亜米利加. Since the first character was already used as an abbreviation for Asia (亜細亜), they picked the second one to stand for America. What’s curious about it is how it went from being read as ‘me’ in the long name but ‘bei’ as an abbreviation. Granted, both are valid readings of the characters, but I don’t see any reason for it here. Of course, ‘b’ and ‘m’ sounds historically often shift in Japanese words. For example, Samurai, derived from the verb samurau (侍ふ) which was originally pronounced saburai.

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