By CANDICE CHOI, Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — The Beijing Games’ panda mascot was a huge hit here in the Chinese capital, where fans lined up for hours to buy plush dolls of the round cartoon Bing Dwen Dwen.

Then last week the character appeared on Chinese TV – and horrified viewers by speaking in a grown man’s voice.

“I don’t think it’s cute anymore,” said one commenter on Chinese social media. “He’s just an old man.”

The incident was a minor stain on the character’s popularity; at the end of the week, as the closing of the Games approached, the cult of Bing Dwen Dwen – one of the most ubiquitous Olympic mascots of recent years – was still going strong and attracting long queues for purchases. But it marked the latest comic mishap in the pantheon of Olympic characters.

political cartoons

The notion of a character as the representative – and distiller – of a product or event has a long and storied history across the world. In Asia, creativity is rampant: packaged goods are full of various colorful and cartoonish animal spokespeople, food spokespeople, and fruit spokespersons.

In an Olympic context, mascot characters are meant to embody the culture of their host cities and fuel interest in the event through the marketing of toys and other memorabilia. But they’re not always a surefire hit. And sometimes they’ve been downright polarizing.

At the 2000 Sydney Games, for example, an unsportsmanlike character named Fatso the Wombat became a rebuke to the sane images of the official mascots. At the 2010 London Games, a newspaper compared the one-eyed mascots to “Cyclopean nightmares”.

But perhaps the most widely ridiculed mascot was at the Atlanta Games in 1996, which featured a blue, cross-eyed figure meant to represent “information technology” and the city’s ambitions as a hub. technological. The creation was introduced during the passing of the torch in Atlanta at the end of the Barcelona Games, when a giant costumed figure ran onto the stage to awkwardly join a dance routine.

“He’s wearing these light blue tights and the blob’s body is very tall, so there’s a lot of leg,” said Sarah Dylla, who curated an exhibit about the Games at the Atlanta History Center.

The character’s name – “WhatIzIt” – added to the audience’s confusion because it sounded like a question, but no one knew the answer, Dylla said.

“It’s embarrassing, that’s what it is,” said a review by Catherine Fox, art critic in an Atlanta newspaper.

The character was later modified and renamed Izzy. Despite media teasing, Dylla said Izzy had proven popular among children and that her absurdity could have paved the way for other cartoon characters, including another divisive mascot: Wenlock, London Games in 2012.

Olympic organizers said Wenlock was meant to be made from the steel used to build London’s Olympic Stadium, and the giant eye in his face was “the lens of a camera, filming everything he sees. “. Some found the appearance unsettling; the Guardian called Wenlock and its lookalike mascot for the Paralympic Games “by far the worst mascots of any Olympics”.

However, opting for more conventional characters didn’t guarantee success either.

After organizers of the 2000 Sydney Games selected a trio of cartoon animals representing Australia, the mascots ended up being eclipsed by a big-assed character named Fatso the Wombat who became popular on a TV show. Australian comedy.

Fatso became so popular that athletes wore him to the podium at medal ceremonies, and Olympic officials were asked at a press conference if he was “stealing the show” and considering to ban it.

“I am not aware of Fatso’s ban,” an Olympic official replied.

Despite the embarrassment they can sometimes cause Olympic organizers, mascots have nevertheless become an important way for host cities to put their stamp on the Games and broaden the appeal of the event.

And while the mascots typically disappear soon after the Olympics are over, it’s their temporary existence that can fuel the memorabilia-buying frenzy, especially among attendees who want souvenirs of their experience, Keith said. Niedermeier, professor of marketing at Indiana University.

“They’re extremely collectible,” he said.

This was the case with Bing Dwen Dwen, who (not who!) got great publicity at medal ceremonies where athletes are given a bear doll to hold on the podium. However, the superstar panda did not come out of the Games unscathed.

During a report on Chinese state television last week, the mascot was seen bouncing while interviewing a Chinese free skier. The voice that emerged from the bear was that of a grown man, creating a jarring effect. A reporter was later shown emerging from inside the suit, but the backlash on Chinese social media was swift.

“He was a middle aged man inside Bing Dwen Dwen. I am horrified,” one user wrote.

The hashtag “#BingDwenDwenHasSpoken” has started trending, prompting Chinese authorities to ban it, as they often do with popular expressions with a whiff of controversial sentiment. Beijing Olympics organizers clarified on their social media account that the TV character was an impostor – and clarified in an email that the ‘real’ Bing Dwen Dwen is not able to speak.

The episode doesn’t seem to have dampened the panda’s popularity. On Saturday, the wait to enter the shop selling Bing Dwen Dwen toys in the main media center was still hours long.

AP researcher Chen Si contributed to this report. More from AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.