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.

Robots relieve us from another dangerous recreation

After reading the terrifying news that riding a bicycle makes you impotent on October 4th, I was relieved to learn just the next day that a Japanese company is developing bicycle riding robots. Finally, the pressure is off. Perhaps this is an adaption of preexisting camel jockey robot technology?

(Seriously, the wrong kind of bicycle seat will make you impotent with too much use. Luckily, the article also says that buying a non-saddle seat will help you avoid those problems.)

Robot camel jockeys

Like horse racing in many Western countries, camel racing is a popular sport in many Middle Eastern countries. Also like horse racing, jockeys are chosen for their small stature, so as to be less of a burden on the animal, and allow it to race more quickly. Unlike horse racing, the jockeys in camel races tend to be children, and they often suffer serious and even fatal injuries.

A BBC story has more information:

The risk of serious injury, disability and death is shockingly high among child jockeys in camel races in Gulf countries, a report shows.

Researchers in Qatar looked at 275 boys, many younger than nine and some as young as five, treated for camel racing injuries at a local hospital.

Seventeen of the boys treated between 1992 and 2003 were left with permanent disabilities and three died.

Although the sport using child riders, many of them trafficked from South Asia, has been banned in many countries, including Qatar since 2005, experts fear many children continue to be at risk.

If reports are accurate, at least 16,000 camels race at the 17 official tracks in the United Arab Emirates.

While the use of child jockeys for sport is now illegal in most places, the law is often ignored, but growing compliance threatens to doom the sport. What can fans to do to save their sport from the claws of crazy anti-childkilling human rights activists? As with most of life’s problems, robots are the answer.

The Wall Street Journal reports that fans of camel racing in the small, rich nation of Qatar have hired a Swiss firm to design them custom camel-racing robots, roughly the same size and weight of a small child.

The WSJ is subscription only, so I’ll reproduce just the directly robot related part of the article below.

“The first thing we knew we had to do was study the behavior of camels, understand their psychology,” Mr. Al-Thani says. After speaking with breeders, trainers, racers and psychologists, the committee summarized the relationship between the camel and jockey in a detailed report, noting crucial elements of camel behavior. Camels’ eyes, for example, roll back far enough to see directly behind them. This meant any robotic jockey would have to bear some resemblance to a human. Camels also have exceptional hearing and might be spooked by mechanical sounds, they determined.

The committee concluded that what was needed was a remotely controlled robot with a human form and voice. Early in 2004, K-Team was called in and offered the $1.37 million contract.

A K-Team delegation arrived in Doha with a battery of digital cameras, taking hundreds of pictures to document the subtle interaction between jockeys and their camels. They shot from every angle, in different race situations, to capture the movements and the reactions of both jockey and camel.

Back in Switzerland, it took months at the drawing board to adjust balance and shock-absorption and to protect against heat. Camels race at around 25 miles an hour — about 10 or 12 miles an hour slower than racehorses — in temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “We conducted 100 hours of testing with 20 prototypes,” says Mr. Al-Thani.

The final product is a 59-pound, human-shaped droid. Mechanical arms and legs help it lean, balance and pull at the reins. The robots are fixed to the special camel saddle, equipped with straps, hooks and clips to keep them in place. They receive orders from trainers riding along behind via a remote-control system attached to the back of the camel.

Equipped with a global positioning system, cameras and microphones, the devices allow trainers to track the animal’s heart rate (170 to 172 beats per minute is a camel’s maximum), the sounds they make and even their facial expression. And the trainer can use a microphone to deliver such exhortations as the typical “haey hej’in!”

The camel trainer uses a joystick on a laptop-size control box to give commands: pulling back to tighten the reins and slow down the animal, forward to ease up on them and left and right for turns. The robot can also operate a whip, and a button on the joystick sends a signal to pull the reins sharply for an emergency stop.

Matsui Struggles with English, Wonders if there’s a “good way to learn out there”

Yukan Fuji (also known as ZAKZAK online) via Yahoo! Japan (rough translation, not always direct):

Matsui Struggles with English, Wonders if there’s a “good way to learn out there”

CHICAGO (Yoshihiro Kuboki): In the second game of the season pitting Yankees left fielder Hideki Matsui and White Sox infielder Tadahiro Iguchi against each other, Matsui, fifth in the order, hit a grounder to 2nd and Iguchi, second in the order, hit a grounder to the shortstop.

Meanwhile, Hide Nakata, who recently switched teams to Britain’s Bolton, surprised local media outlests by speaking fluent English without relying on an interpreter at his welcome press conference [Tr: He also forced Japanese reporters to ask him questions in English. Poor guys!]. So, how is Hide Matsui holding up with his English?

Matsui always answers questions at locker room press conferences through his interpreter, Rogerio Carron (sp?). However, a local reporter praised his English, saying, “Sometimes we talk candidly when the interpreter isn’t around, but I didn’t notice him having any trouble. He understands enough of what I’m saying.”

On the bench, it is not uncommon to see Matsui joking and laughing with friends such as team leader Derek Jeter. Though in his first year “Godzilla” couldn’t understand a word of what manager Joe Torre was saying at meetings, now he can even understand Torre’s jokes. Later, when asked whether he gave any consoling remarks to Yankees pitcher Scott Proctor after he walked in a run at the recent Yankees-Devilrays game, Matsui replied, “There’s no way I could have talked to him. I don’t speak English!”

One might recall that Matsui doesn’t really like to be asked about his English ability, like the time when he returned to his hometown and avoided the urgings of the host of a gathering of villagers to let them hear him speak English.

However, Matsui, in his 3rd season in Major League Baseball, is putting a lot of effort into his English studies. He doesn’t say much about it, claiming, “I don’t do anything special. I wonder if there is a good way to learn out there,” according to a source close to Matsui, he has a few English converation books close at hand in his home, and he looks them over when he can find some free time. He is also being proactive in using his English, trying such everyday (for a pro baseball player) tasks as ordering room service.

It is said that the reason Matsui is studying English so diligently is because he wants to speak more with Derek Jeter. Matsui respects Jeter because they both came up through hard work, not by sheer talent. Matsui is able to get excited about studying because he has a clear motivation. The day may come soon when Matsui speaks English at a press conference that outdoes Nakata’s.

Just cuz this shouldn’t go unnoticed — Japan Just Lost to NK in Soccer

First NK shuns Japan at the 6-party talks, now their soccer team is making Japan look like a bunch of fancy boys. I gotta say, the North Koreans sure know how to make someone feel unwelcome:

Japan stunned by N. Korea at E. Asian c’ship

Monday, August 1, 2005 at 07:38 JST
DAEJEON — Japan’s hopes of lifting their first east Asian championship title suffered an unexpected blow on Sunday after a shock 1-0 defeat to North Korea on the opening day of the four-team tournament in South Korea.

Kim Young Jun capitalized on some poor defending to strike the decisive goal in the 27th minute at Daejeon World Cup Stadium as North Korea avenged their recent 2-0 defeat in the Asian zone qualifying competition for next year’s World Cup finals.

I couldn’t find any pictures from the game but this was linked on Xinhua’s site:


America shocked at Japanese sign: “Ichiro has a small dick” makes it on national TV

Another colorful article from SANSPO.COM (via 2ch news):

The Japanese living in America’s west coast all thought it must be a dream: the words, banned from TV and thus not expected to be seen, were shown clear as day on their TV screens at the Mariners-Padres game on June 26.

In the 9th inning, an incident occurred during the live TV broadcast. An American fan held up a placard in Japanese with a terrible message:

“Ichiro has a small dick!” (イチローには小さいチ●ポがついています — of course there is a certain katakana letter that should go where the circle is)

The shocking scene lasted for about 3 seconds. There are occasionally fans who hold up Japanese-language signs, but almost no one on the broadcast staff in America can read Japanese. Thankfully this did not make it onto Japanese television, but the station was the victim of a cruel practical joke.

It was not a good day for Ichiro. He did not start. This is the first time in the season he has been of the starting lineup and would have been his 74th straight game. Mariners manager Hargrove explained, “It was my decision. Since there’s no game tomorrow he gets 2 days off by not playing today.” He had urged Ichiro to rest many times, but the answer was always no. After discussing for 20 minutes Hargrove made Ichiro rest by “forcible execution.”

Even his one at bat ended midway. “Players who are always in the starting lineup have a different method of getting worked up,” said a quiet Ichiro. Adding insult to injury was the unexpectedly offensive placard.

Comment: I can’t find a picture of the actual placard, but I’m sure you can imagine.

Some comments from 2ch:

  • This looks like the work of Hentai Mask! (tr: NOT SAFE FOR WORK!!!)
  • (Written in a fake Korean accent) Some races do some terrible things, nida! But there’s no helping that since Japanese people are hated all around the world, nida!
  • I’m sure it was a Korean-American fan!

  • But wait, it is true that his dick’s small right?
  • “Ritual” Pro Wrestling at Yasukuni Shrine: ZERO-ONE MAX

    From SANSPO:

    Yasukuni Shrine in Kudan, Tokyo, held the first “ritual” pro wrestling match “Yamato Land of the Gods Strength Festival” in 44 years on April 10th.

    Six matches were held by the ZERO1-MAX wrestling league in the outdoor compound, where the burning flames lit up the fully bloomed night cherry blossoms. The main event, AWA heavyweight world champion Omori Takao (35) successfully defended his title for the second time. Ogawa Naoya (37) of UFO and Takefuji Keiji (42) of AJPW made guest appearances, exciting the 3627 fans crowded into the shrine. “It’s wonderful to be at such a special place,” gushed ZERO1 Representative Otani Shinji (32).

    The last ritual match was held in April 1961 with Rikidozan protegees Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. 5000 people came to see it back then. There was also an historic March 1921 mixed styles wrestling match at Yasukuni between American pro wrestler Ad Santel and Judo star Shoji Hikoo.

    ZERO1-MAX would like to make the “ritual” pro wrestling a yearly spring tradition at Yasukuni.

    Hideki Matsui, a Rod Stewart fan?!

    Love this picture!
    From the always lovable SUNSPO:

    Tampa, FL (Tashiro Manabu and Ami Shunsuke reporting) — Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui (30) took his first full day of rest during this year’s Spring Training on Mar. 23. Matsui has been at his best in the exhibition games, but the secret to his success can be found in the sweet voice of pop singer Rod Stewart (60). It’s been his favorite recently, saying that it’s really great to listen to while training (?!). (Photo: “Godzilla” Matsui takes a ride in his car to get refreshed on his full day off)

    “Godzilla” smiles as he does his situps. Even away from the field he cannot take a break from his training routine. With a 333 batting average, 5 hits and 15 RBIs in the exhibition games, the outfielder is at his best. But why Rod Stewart?

    “I hadn’t really listened to him before, but the singing and the music are very easy on the ears. It’s great for training, so I love putting it on.”

    As Matsui trained the sweet strains of Stewart’s unique voice could be heard on the stereo speakers. When he came to America, “The Great American Songbook Vol. 3” (A cover album of American standards including Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”) was among the CDs he brought with him. He bought it because it had a comfortable sound that he might have heard somewhere before.

    He likes it enough that he’s considering getting the previous two volumes, and he listens to it every time he trains at home. The tag team of Rod Stewart and Godzilla will shoot for the stars this season, so watch out!

    My Comment: That last sentence conjures up images that I wish I could Photoshop. Who knew Matsui had such lame taste in music? God this guy is hideous:


    Japan Brings Judo to Iraq as Humanitarian Aid

    The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on March 18 that they will be providing 200 Judo uniforms to the Iraqi Judo Federation. Their stated purpose is:

    to promote friendship with Iraqi people and to deepen their understanding about Japan and also strengthen their hope toward the future through Judo, which is one of the national sports of Japan that place importance on the spiritual side.

    This is in addition to the $91,000 of judo and soccer (football for you non-Americans) equipment that they donated to Iraq just short of one year ago.

    Apparently judo has a sizable presence in Iraq, with over 25,000 members in their national judo federation, and it seems that the sport is taken quite seriously there. According to this article on one Iraqi Olympic athlete (in another sport):

    Iraq’s judo champion, who will carry the national flag at the opening ceremony, and his coach were once incarcerated in Uday’s private dungeons after performing below expectations.)

    Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki: Beyond The Mat

    I recently set up Google News Alerts, a wonderful service that e-mails you search results from Google News whenever they show up. My first big payoff is this story, going beyond the mat documenting the 1976 “boxer versus wrestler” match between Muhammad Ali and my favorite Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki. It’s a great read (excerpt quoted below):

    “Now Herbert [Muhammad, Ali’s manager] came to me and he said these Japanese people have come to him with all kinds of money to go over and fight this wrestler, Inoki, in Japan,” says Bob Arum, who promoted the exhibition. While Arum has promoted some of the biggest fights in boxing history, he has also promoted other extravaganzas, most notably Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump the Snake Canyon in a rocket car.

    Ali’s handlers began putting the fight together in April of 1975, when Ali met Ichiro Yada, the then-president of the Japan Amateur Wrestling Association, at a party in the United States. Ali asked Yada, “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter to challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.” Ali was probably joking but Yada brought his comment back to the Japanese press. When Inoki read Ali’s words, he relentlessly pursued a match, finally getting him to sign a deal in March of 1976.

    The money was without a doubt great: $6 million for Ali, $4 million for Inoki. And the bout seemed like it would be nothing more than fun, entertaining fare. As Arum put it, “Professional wrestlers are performers. The thing is a fraud.”

    However, Inoki had not planned to put on a show. To him and his manager, it was a serious fight between a boxer and a wrestler. According to Pacheco, “Ali’s fight in Tokyo was basically a Bob Arum thought up scam that was going to be ‘ha-ha, ho-ho. We’re going to go over there. It’s going to be orchestrated. It’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s just a joke.’ And when we got over there, we found out no one was laughing.”
    Continue reading Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki: Beyond The Mat