My topic this week: The mascots of the Summer Olympic Games, and any animation associated with them.
I cannot find that anyone else has written about this, so I might as well. Doubtlessly I will get comments telling me where this has already been covered.
The first Olympics to have a cartoon mascot as distinct from an emblem were the 1972 Summer games in Münich, although the 1968 Winter and Summer games both used a unique “proto-mascot” on their official stationery and press releases. The 1972 Münich mascot was Waldi, a multi-shaded blue dachshund in a gaudy sweater. However, Waldi didn’t do much more than exist as a mascot and Waldi plush dolls.
The 1976 Winter games in Innsbruck (Schneemann, an anthropomorphized snowball) and Summer games in Montréal (Amik, a beaver) took the concept of mascots further in merchandising with dolls, cloth patches, pins, etc., but these were still little more than one image used over and over.
It was with the 1980 Summer games in Moscow that the Olympic mascot was given a personality and really came alive. Probably everyone on Earth – well, everyone reading Cartoon Research – has seen Misha the bear cub. The Moscow Olympics Organizing Committee took special care to make him a genuine personality.
Misha was “born” in 1977 when the Moscow Olympics Organizing Committee held a contest to design the 1980 Summer games mascot. The contest was first conducted by a popular TV program, Animal World, and a magazine, Soviet Sport, to choose the type of mascot. The majority of the 45,000 letters recommended the Russian national symbol, the brown bear. The Committee next asked 60 artists recommended by the Artists’ Union of the U.S.S.R. to submit designs featuring a bear. The winning design was submitted by Victor Chizhikov, a popular illustrator of children’s books. It was of a smiling bear cub wearing a belt of the five colors of the Olympic rings (blue, black, yellow, green, and red), with an Olympic-rings golden buckle. It reportedly took Chizhikov six months to draw a hundred variations of Misha for use in all poses. Chizhikov’s flat drawings were developed into a three-dimensional model by another artist, Victor Ropov. Misha was given such an extensive backstory that the MOOC threw most of it out as superfluous, keeping only Misha’s full name — Mikhail Potapych Toptygin — and his birthday – December 19, 1977; actually the date that he was approved by the MOOC as the 1980 Summer games’ official mascot.
Misha was the first Olympics mascot to be merchandized in too many forms to list, and to be immortalized in many forms. There are still at least three Misha statues in Kiev, Ukraine. (Or Kyïv; now that it is independent, Ukraine is pushing to make everyone aware that Ukranian rather than Russian spellings are preferred.) Misha has also retained his popularity longer than any other Olympics mascot. There have continued to be Misha plush dolls in Russia, and when Sochi, Russia was chosen as the site of the 2014 Winter games, there was a huge demand throughout Russia to make Misha its mascot again. When a cartoon polar bear was chosen as one of three official mascots (White Misha the polar bear, Zaika the winter hare, and Leopard the snow leopard), he was officially declared to be Misha’s grandson. (This did not save him from an accusation of plagiarism by Misha’s creator, Victor Chizhikov. “It’s exactly the same as mine: the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the smile. I don’t like being robbed,” he has said publicly.)
Actually, this may be illegal. According to the by-laws of International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 governing the use of mascots:
50.3. Any mascot created for the Olympic Games shall be considered to be an Olympic emblem, the design of which must be submitted by the OCOG to the IOC Executive Board for its approval. Such mascot may not be used for commercial purposes in the country of an NOC without the latter’s prior written approval.
50.4. The OCOG shall ensure the protection of the property of the emblem and the mascot of the Olympic Games for the benefit of the IOC, both nationally and internationally. However, the OCOG alone and, after the OCOG has been wound up, the NOC of the host country, may exploit such emblem and mascot, as well as other marks, designs, badges, posters, objects and documents connected with the Olympic Games during their preparation, during their holding and during a period terminating not later than the end of the calendar year during which such Olympic Games are held. Upon the expiry of this period, all rights in or relating to such emblem, mascot and other marks, designs, badges, posters, objects and documents shall thereafter belong entirely to the IOC. The OCOG and/or the NOC, as the case may be and to the extent necessary, shall act as trustees (in a fiduciary capacity) for the sole benefit of the IOC in this respect.
The mascot suits, animation production materials and prints, and any unsold merchandise is required to be destroyed, not sold. This is why the judges of the Russian nationwide design contest to select the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics mascot, held September 1 to December 5, 2010, rejected a majority favorite among the 24,000 designs submitted: Ded Moroz, or Father Frost. The judges explained during the February 7, 2011 announcement of the winners that, according to the IOC Rules, all Summer and Winter games mascots become the property of the IOC, and must be discontinued within the end of the calendar year after the completion of their games. Since Father Frost is a traditional Russian folkloric character, nobody would want to give him up to the IOC and have him discontinued after a year. Therefore, Misha should have been withdrawn after the end of 1980.
Misha was the first mascot to be massively merchandized, on hundreds of items from children’s baby bibs and toys to adults’ household utensils and cigarette lighters. But what we are interested in is the animation. Misha has also been animated more than any other mascot.
The first time was just before the 1980 games, in Baba Yaga Protiv! (Baba Yaga Protests!), a three-part 9-minute-each theatrical cartoon directed by Vladimir Pekar at Soyuzmultfilm, released during early 1980. Baba Yaga, the traditional Russian witch who lives in a forest in a walking hut on giant chicken’s legs, is jealous that Misha has been selected to be the Olympics mascot instead of her. She tries to kidnap him so she can replace him before he can light the Olympic torch, but her clumsy assistants, Gorynych the three-headed snake/dragon and Koschei the Deathless (two more folkloric villains), keep fouling up. Baba Yaga Protests! was shown throughout the Soviet Union and possibly Eastern Europe.
There were two other very short animated appearances of Misha in the Soviet Union. One was a walk-on appearance at the conclusion (8’32” of 9’18”) of Nu, Pogodi! #13, the popular series of the Wolf and the Hare that has been called the Russian equivalent of MGM’s Tom and Jerry. The title is the Wolf’s habitual signoff, which is usually translated as, “Just you wait!” or “I’ll get you next time!” In #13, the Wolf chases the Hare into the 1980 Olympics, and after the usual cartoon mishaps, both the Wolf and the Hare end up on the winners’ stand where Misha presents them each with an award. The other, titled Misha – Olympic Champion, is uncredited and only lasts 40 seconds. It may have been a TV commercial for the games.
But the animated Misha seen around the world was Japanese; a 26-episode TV series titled Koguma no Misha (Misha the Bear Cub), directed by Yoshimichi Nitta at Nippon Animation. It was broadcast on TV Asahi on Saturdays from 7:00 to 7:30 p.m., from October 6, 1979 to March 29, 1980. Aside from using the Summer Olympics’ mascot design that Nippon Animation had licensed, the TV serial was developed with all Japanese writers and cinematographers – the character designer was Isamu Kumada — and bore no connection with the Olympic games in Moscow that summer.
The series is about young Misha and his parents, the Potapychs, who have just moved from a big city to the remote town (population: 99) of Himadabeya. Mr. Potapych is a former newspaperman who wants solitude to write a novel. Misha tries to adjust to a rural life and make new friends, but naturally there are problems with bullies and clannish adults who don’t like strangers. Misha gradually wins acceptance among the proud loners. One continuing situation is that among Misha’s first playmates are Nyago and Mirumiru, the son and daughter of Mr. Nekosuki the tapir inventor. Nyago becomes one of Misha’s best friends, but Mirumiru develops a crush on him and becomes insanely jealous of the bear girl Natasha. Misha has to figure out how to let Mirumiru down gently. The whole cast are funny animals; adult and juvenile tapirs, foxes, tigers, storks, cats, hippopotamuses, and others. The conductor and engineer of the little train that brings the Potapychs to Himadabeya are gorillas. The program was best-known for giving Misha a young girl friend, the polar bear Mayor’s daughter Natasha. Several reviewers commented that this was more than he’d been given in the Soviet Union.
Aside from being broadcast in Japan, Koguma no Misha was shown in France, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, and Spain. It was dubbed into Arabic and Farsi, and was reportedly popular throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Photo below: a Misha statue in Kiev
1980 advanced to 1984, and the Summer Olympic games were held in Los Angeles. Both the United States Olympic Committee and the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee agreed that there was only one man, or company, to design the 1984 mascot: Walt Disney Productions. Disney assigned one of its cartoonists to the job, C. Robert (Bob) Moore. While Moore was not quite ordered to make an American bald eagle the mascot, the vast majority of the organizers felt that the mascot should officially represent all America, not just Los Angeles or California. The only other choice seriously considered was the American bison (buffalo), and Moore pointed out that when a buffalo was anthropomorphized to stand on two legs, it looked topheavy. The eagle had its own problems; it looked too stern or martial, and it lacked hands. Moore was asked to design a child-friendly “cuddly, patriotic eagle”, and he successfully designed the wings so they could double as arms and hands. Sam the Olympic Eagle was unveiled to the public on August 4, 1980.
Sam the Olympic Eagle’s popularity from 1980 until Summer 1984 should not need repeating. If he was not merchandized more heavily than Misha, it is only because both were so heavily merchandized that the difference is inconsequential. A major problem that Sam never overcame was that his head of white feathers made him look like a senior citizen. He may have been cuddly, but he came across at best as a kindly old man. Whether Moore ever tried to design Sam as a child or an athletic youth is not known, but despite being shown as participating in all of the Summer Olympics sports, he was unmistakably an adult. Although he was designed by a Disney Artist, there was never any demand in America to animate him. Sam was withdrawn according to IOC rules within a year after the 1984 Summer games were over, and was soon forgotten.
But Sam did become a star of a weekly TV cartoon series – in Japan again: Eagle Sam, 51 weekly episodes directed by Hideo Nishimaki and Kenji Kodama, at Dax International; broadcast on Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS) on Thursdays from 7:00 to 7:30 p.m., from April 7, 1983 to March 29, 1984.
Unlike Koguma no Misha, Eagle Sam never played outside Japan. Those who have seen it have wondered how it ever came to play IN Japan! The obvious answer, whether true or not, was that someone must have decided to get revenge against America for World War II.
Eagle Sam was a gun-waving private investigator. (Everyone knows that all Americans are gun-happy.) He had a human secretary, Canary Karina, who may or may not have been supposed to be pretty – with character designer Yoshio Kabashima’s art style it was hard to tell – but there was no doubt about the amount of cleavage she showed. Sam and Canary were always accompanied on their cases by Gosling, her slingshot-wielding kid brother. Sam was portrayed as the only one in Olympic City (a thinly-disguised stereotype of Hollywood) who could solve any crimes or catch any criminals, because the police were too busy eating doughnuts, playing golf, or beating up innocent people. The police uniform’s badge was a Star of David. Naturally, Chief Albatross and Officer Bogie (or Bogey) don’t like to be shown up, so they – with Albatross’s daughter Chichi – were always trying to sabotage Sam. Usually Albatross thought up the schemes and assigned Bogie to carry them out, but Bogie seldom got farther than being distracted by Canary’s cleavage. When Sam got into a tight spot, he would toss his Olympic Hat with the five glowing rings into the air, reach into it, and pull out whatever he needed. The one who gave Sam the most trouble was the disrespectful jive-talkin’, skateboarding, shades-wearing cockroach, Gokuro, who drove him crazy with his sassy but legal mockery. (Cockroach in Japanese is gokiburi.) Other characters were Mr. Pelican the hippie, and Thunderbird the weight-lifter.
A lot of anime fans do not believe this existed, but the opening credits are on YouTube (embed below) to prove it. Eagle Sam was for little children, and despite its unbelievable scenario, it was shallow and boring.
This column is running much longer than I had expected it to. I will cover the mascots and their animation from 1988 on, next week.
Photo Below: a Sam The Olympic Eagle frisbee at Walmart