Bob Christianson walks into his house in Palm Harbor, Fla., and
places his key chain--the one with the image of Waldi the
dachshund, mascot of the 1972 Munich Olympics--into an ashtray
for safekeeping. Christianson does not smoke, but he does
collect, and the ashtray bears the likeness of a sheepdog named
Cobi, Barcelona's '92 Olympic mascot. Christianson then washes
his hands with soap from his Magique (star, Albertville, '92)
soap dish, dries his hands on a Howdy and Hidy (polar bears,
Calgary, '88) towel, flips on his Roni (raccoon, Lake Placid,
'80) radio, wipes a Hodori (tiger, Seoul, '88) bowl with an Amik
(beaver, Montreal, '76) cloth, takes out a Schneemandl (snowman,
Innsbruck, '76) matchbox and lights the stove to prepare dinner.
From Hakon piggy banks to Snowlet screen savers, Christianson's
home is a five-ringed homage to the warm and cuddly talismen of
Olympia. Almost every corner is enameled, embroidered or
wallpapered with the stuff.
The 55-year-old retired insurance facilities manager is perhaps
the world's foremost authority on Olympic mascots, which he
began collecting 23 years ago. "Mascots are the first and most
lasting recognizable connection people make to an Olympics,"
says Christianson, whose eight children and seven grandchildren
know their holiday and birthday gifts will have Olympic themes.
"They speak for the Games and their cities."
Mascot fever is also a necessary affliction for Olympic
organizing committees, which raise up to a third of their
revenue through merchandising sales and through fees from
sponsors who use the mascots to market their products. Salt Lake
City, which had planned to unveil its mascots at the closing
ceremony of the 1998 Nagano Games, waited until last month to
introduce a bear, a snowshoe hare and a coyote as its mascot
team. (When the committee ran the first versions by middle
America 18 months ago, focus groups in Phoenix, Milwaukee and
Salt Lake City gave the nominees the thumbs-down. The Salt Lake
City Organizing Committee passed on a year's worth of sales
rather than risk ridicule.)
"The pain and suffering inflicted on an organizing committee for
a failed mascot is not easy," Laurie Olsen, communications
director for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG),
told reporters recently. Olsen was the maligned spokeswoman for
the computer-contrived Izzy, the Olympics' most notorious mascot
misfire. Just what wuzzie, anyway? The amorphous blob looked
like a mutant Pillsbury Doughboy. After much Izzy mockery, ACOG
officials lowered its profile during the Games. Izzy was too
busy to attend the opening ceremonies. Then ACOG president Billy
Payne declined to pose with Izzy at the Olympic Village. Civil
rights champion Andrew Young, an ACOG co-chairman, was
diplomatic. "Izzy is breeding a new level of tolerance for
things that look different from you and me," he said during the
Games. Sales of Izzy-emblazoned merchandise stalled at $250
million, certainly less than planned.
Eight years earlier Barcelona artist Javier Mariscal introduced
Cobi, the Cubist pup whose image was influenced by Picasso, Jimi
Hendrix and hallucinogens. "I drew him when I was stoned,"
Mariscal admitted. Maybe that explained why Cobi had two eyes in
profile. One dark rendition depicted Cobi as a disillusioned
youth. Stung by the initial negative reaction, Mariscal snuck
out of town temporarily, but the dog caught a tailwind and
eventually had his own TV show.
Other organizing committees have needed relief mascots. Bad
reviews spooked Albertville officials into dumping Chamois the
goat in favor of the more innocuous Magique. Lake Placid's bold
choice of the first live mascot, Rocky raccoon, was fine until
Rocky died a year before the Games. Nagano abandoned Snowple the
weasel (some think he found work at the IOC) in favor of four
owls called Snowlets that appeared tipsy in beer ads and pitched
everything from chopsticks to condoms. Organizers smartly
limited production of plush Snowlets to a half million, which
were gone before the Games began and sold on the black market
for up to $200 apiece. One visiting U.S. entrepreneur charged
$10 for directions to Snowlet sellers.
Serious collectors know to search for faux mascots and forgotten
mascots. The 1980 Moscow Olympics had not only the ubiquitous
bear, Misha, but also a seal named Vigri that was stationed only
at the yachting venue in Tallinn, about 500 miles northwest of
The prized piece in Christianson's 1,000-plus treasure trove is
a miniature Schuss, the balloon-headed skier who was chosen as
the first mascot for an Olympics, at the 1968 Winter Games in
Grenoble. Christianson spotted Schuss in the window of a cigar
shop on a side street in Albertville in 1992. The 300-pound
collector spoke no French, and his giddy gyrations amused the
unilingual shop owner on three visits. On his fourth trip
Christianson brought a translator. "This man is the world's
premier mascot collector," pleaded the translator. "He will give
Schuss a good home." The shopkeeper relented and sold Schuss for
$100. Christianson has declined 10 times that amount to part
with Schuss. He also turned down $1,200 for a plush Amik he
purchased for 50 cents at a Salvation Army store in Montreal.
Christianson is highly respected by those afflicted with Olympic
collecting fever and has twice spoken before the IOC in
Lausanne. He buys and sells at fairs and auctions and, on the
Internet, on eBay. He also trades often with the IOC's Olympic
Museum. Some mascot items have appreciated like Internet stocks.
In 1984 at Sarajevo, Christianson spent some loose dinars on Pez
dispensers depicting Vuchko, the wolf mascot of those Winter
Games. The dispensers now go for $800 apiece.
At a time when scandal has cooled some sponsors' enthusiasm for
Olympic association, embraceable mascots are paramount for Games
organizers. "We need the mascots to be well received," says
Sydney spokesman Greg Thomas, whose committee anticipates a $50
million windfall from more than $300 million in mascot sales.
But instead of, say, a cute kangaroo or furry koala to represent
the 2000 Games, Sydney chose an echidna and a platypus--the only
mammals in the world that lay eggs--and a kookaburra (which, the
dictionary says, is also known as a laughing jackass). So Izzy's
inscrutability is relative.
"They look great, very appealing," Christianson says. "The
Olympics are about athletes, but it is better for the Games if
the mascots are visual, likable and huggable." Better still if
they become cash cows.