The 2018 Winter Olympics are over, and there was one clear winner: Soohorang, mascot of the Pyeongchang games.
Deadspin’s Hannah Keyser, who was in South Korea for the games, says that Soohorang (a white tiger) and 2018 Paralympics mascot Bandabi (an Asiatic black bear) “were everywhere.” She added: “Soohorang was huge. And, like, surprisingly universally beloved.”
Yes, part of Soohorang’s ubiquity had to do with the fact that athletes were given stuffed versions of it after their events in lieu of a medal (those came later at a separate ceremony). But the mascot was so popular that people had to resort to buying lookalike versions of the cute Soohorang hats children were wearing at the closing ceremonies.
Olympic mascots are a big deal. The infamous mascot for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta was originally named Whatizit. Later rechristened Izzy, the mascot was compared to a sperm in sneakers. Matt Groening said it looked like a “bad marriage of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin.” The message from insiders was pretty much the same. “We were horrified,” 1996 Olympic marathon director Julia Emmons told Atlanta magazine years later. “Completely and totally horrified.”
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And yet Soohorang was the “star” of the Olympic games, in part because the mascot costume was too big and got stuck in a few doors. You never know what’s going to hit.
If the mascot goes right, it turns into a cute symbol of unity and sells a bunch of plush dolls. If it goes wrong, it’s a complete disaster and people are still dragging it in Atlanta magazine years later. South Korea’s organizers clearly did their job. This means that the pressure is now on for the mascot-mad country of Japan, which just named the mascots for the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo in 2010.
Schoolchildren around the country voted for their favorites from a list of three mascots. (Two separate mascot committees previously met 15 times to winnow down an original pool of 1,753.) And, as Kotaku noted this morning, the winners look a lot like Pokémon.
Looking like Pokémon isn’t bad. It’s certainly better than looking like a sperm in sneakers. And these mascots, which are currently unnamed, do have pretty cool superpowers. The sapphire Olympic mascot can teleport anywhere instantly, while the deep pink Paralympic mascot can talk with stones and the wind.
But will they capture the public’s attention? The right mascot can do big business. Products bearing the imagine of Kumamon, a black bear from Kumamoto Prefecture, racked up $1.2 billion in sales in 2016. The wrong mascot… is something we’ve covered already.
Some mascot observers are nervous that Japan’s new mascots might not hold up to Soohorang and Bandabi. The BBC says the new mascots “have a tough act to follow.” The Japan Times says that the “success of Pyeongchang Olympic mascots leaves Japan in a bind.”
Yukari Tanaka writes that some people don’t like that the mascots look like Pokémon. She argues that “the Tokyo options have come off second best when compared to the mascots at the center of the Pyeongchang Games.” She quotes someone on Twitter: “The difference in cuteness is vast.” Another Twitter user weighed in with criticism, writing “I want to buy a lot of official Olympic merchandise. I suspect whichever mascots get chosen for Tokyo 2020 won’t be as cute. They probably won’t inspire me to buy a product.”
For all the magical talking-to-stones-and-the-wind aspects of the process, this isn’t really that complicated. These cute mascots are generally engineered to get you to buy shit. If they don’t do that, then they will have failed—even if they can tell us what rocks are saying. And if Japan holds the Olympics and the mascot is a bust, is anything real anymore?