I have to admit it; I’m a huge Olympic Geek.  In general, I’m not a sports fan.  With the exception1 of the four years I lived in New Hampshire prior to hitting the road, I’ve never followed sports.  I’ve attended a minor league hockey or baseball game occasionally, and it’s fun to watch, but I pay no attention to the day to day happenings of pro sports, don’t know any players except the biggest names who bleed over in to my google news feed, and don’t have a team I’d consider “my team” (though, when forced, I’ll still side with the Sox, Revs, Pats, Celtics, Bruins etc).

When I started running, I had no clue about any elite runners.  The first I heard of “a name” was when Ryan Shay passed away during the 2007 Olympic Trials.  I was traveling a lot for work at the time, so I kept picking up Runners World at airport newsstands (since Tracks magazine disappeared from the world very quickly) and learned about elite runners.  Somewhere along the way I caught a showing of Spirit of the Marathon in Austin, TX and got a feel for the world of elites as they followed Daniel Njenga.   Since then, I’ve definitely taken up a more spectator role in running events, but it’s still not so much a “sports fan” mentality as a “here are the people that are really good at something I like to do – it impresses me to watch them  and I hope to learn a little something” mentality.

I still have no interest in watching sports on television, listening to a game on the radio, or even flipping through a newspaper to the sports page.  Until the Olympics come around.  Something about the Olympics is different.  I’ve been fascinated with the games for as long as I can remember.  I think part of it is the fact that instead of random groups of people hired to play together, they are all representatives coming to represent their country at an international gathering.  I have a thing for international gatherings2.  I blame my father taking me to Rotary International Conventions when I was little.

I don’t recall a lot of details, but I recall the excitement of 1984 when I was 7 and the Olympics were in Los Angeles.  I won a Sam the Olympic Eagle3 doll at a carnival of some sort at the local library.  In 1988 I was actually in Portugal with my family for most of the Olympics and was in a cafe to see the finish of the women’s marathon as Rosa Mota took the gold.  The enthusiasm of everyone in the room was pretty hard for even a dense 11 year old to miss.

And on and on it went.  Every four years (or, starting in 1992, every two) I get all geeked out and start caring about sports and the athletes that compete.  This used to mean begging my parents for some stupid souvenir magazine at the supermarket or stealing the newspaper inserts from the, turned in to visits to the library to learn more about them, and somewhere around 1996 became constantly checking the internet for updates.  And, whenever possible, complaining about the horrible coverage and commentators on NBC4.  And I never once wanted to participate in any sport.  Nothing about the Olympics ever inspired me to be active.  I just really enjoyed watching the flags, the fans from all over the world, the athletes who represent the best of their nation, and, usually, the camaraderie and sportsmanship between athletes from all over the world5.

In between Olympics, I get excited when the bidding cycles come around, when IOC meets to pick a winner6, and when the host city starts promoting the games.   Needless to say, I’ve been on the mailing list for London 2012 since July, 2005.  (The London Organizing Committee is actually a customer of my company’s and I was hoping they might need some on-site support for the event, but it looks like they’ve got enough competent people on their team.  Shucks.)

So where is all this going?  Why did I start a running blog a few weeks ago only to ramble on about how I love the Olympics and how it has nothing to do with the fact that I much more recently learned I love running?  Thanks for asking.  The reason is twofold;  One, I’ve had a cold the last couple of days and have no energy to do anything, including thinking.  So I’m writing this in lieu of going for a run on what turned out to be a beautiful day.  *damn you sky!*  Two, on Wednesday, London 2012 revealed the mascots for the Olympic and Paralympic games; Wenlock and Mandeville.

Wenlock and Mandeville are ALIVE!

Yeah, they look ridiculous, but I’m quickly learning to love them.  Thinking back, the 80s had generic cartoon animals as mascots; 1980 had Misha the Russian bear, 1984 had Sam, designed by a Disney artist, Winter 1988 had Hidy and Howdy, cowboy bears that welcomed people to Calgary all the way up through 2007, Summer 1988 had 호돌이 (Hodori) the tiger with a hat that looked like it could take your head off like OddJob.  And then things went kind of downhill.  Do you remember Cobi, the vaguely Picasso-esque Sheepdog from Barcelona?  Or Håkon and Kristin, the vaguely Norwegian children from 1994?  Or Petra and Sondre, the amputees representing the Paralympics in 92 and 94?  How about the Snowlets from Nagano, Olly, Syd, and Mille from Sydney, or Powder, Copper, and Coal from Salt Lake City?  No, I didn’t think so.

With the exception of Izzy, the first CGI mascot, who isn’t really notable for any positive reason, everything between Hodori and Athena and Phevos barely even register in my memory.  Not that Athena and Phevos were really good mascots, but they mark the beginning on the modern era of mascots where we’re not trying to represent a nationally significant animal.  Nowadays, the organizing committees apparently just go for something simple and elegant, vaguely blobesque, yet easy to animate with a computer and manufacture as a plush doll.  This strategy brought us Neve and Gliz, the snowball and ice cube from Torino 2006, the Fuwa (Beibei (贝贝), Jingjing (晶晶), Huanhuan (欢欢), Yingying (迎迎), Nini (妮妮)) from Beijing 2008, and Miga, Quatchi, Mukmuk, and Sumi from Vancouver 2010, which are sort of back to being nationally significant animals, but still vaguely blobesque and half mythical.

Which brings us to Wenlock and Mandeville.  According to their origins video, they are apparently literally blobs, formed from some molten steel that an insomniac contractor named George almost gets killed by, then steals from the Olympic job site on his last day of work before retirement.  He brings the blobs home to his grandchildren that he and his wife are apparently raising but whom can’t be courteous enough to wait for grandpa to get home before eating his cake.  Once he molds them in to blobby statue and presents them to the kids they are, of course, brought to life by a rainbow over London.  So, yeah, they’re blobs because they came from molten metal.  I actually like that a lot better than arbitrary blobbiness.

So we’ve got Wenlock, named for the village of Much Wenlock, where Dr. William Penny Brookes started the Olympian Class in 1850, which he renamed to the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1859 after adopting events from ZappasOlympics in Athens, which in 1890 gave birth to the International Olympic Committee and the rotating four year program that survives today.

And then we’ve got Mandeville, named for the village of Stoke Mandeville7, where in 1948 Ludwig Guttmann started the Stoke Mandeville Games at a local rehab hospital, later renamed to the World Wheelchair and Amputee Games, still held annually, but in 1960 started the tradition of the Paralympic games.

And there we go.  They now have their own Facebook (W and M) pages and Twitter (W and M) accounts, where they promote the Olympics in first person mascot ways.  And they’re an industrial byproduct crammed to the brim with history.  What’s not to love?

My favorite moment, of course, is Wenlock striking the Usain Bolt pose.  Hopefully some more athletes will come up with trademark showboat poses for the animators to emulate.

Hidy and Howdy

Show 7 footnotes

  1. And this is a limited exception; I had coworkers who ran a Fantasy Football league and taught me enough to participate.  And I vaguely followed the playoffs onward the years the Red Sox and Patriots made it.  Primarily because of the aforementioned coworkers.  Whom I miss, frankly.  Though I don’t miss professional sports.
  2. I do get a little in to following the World Cup every few years.
  3. Not to be confused with Sam the American Eagle
  4. I don’t know if it’s getting worse or if I was just less cynical, but I didn’t complain as much when I was young.
  5. Yes, I was aware of nations boycotting one anothers’ games, the Friendship Games, and other generally un-Olympic attitudes going on around me, but I still think at it’s core the Olympic movement is a good thing.
  6. Next up, South Africa on July 6, 2011; between Annecy, Munich, Germany, and Pyeongchang for Winter 2018!
  7. Not to be confused with the stage play The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman, which I hope gets performed at more theaters as a result of my little blobby friend.