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Olympic mascots: Cute or creepy?

By Sheena McKenzie
July 25, 2012 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Introducing Wenlock and Mandeville: London 2012's Olympic poster-creatures
  • "Digital age" mascots feature giant eyes, metallic finish and sci-fi genetics
  • Are they the cutting edge of design or just plain creepy?
  • Product launch sparks spoof reviews on Amazon of sinister toys taking over

(CNN) -- Aliens have taken over London and the invasion is gathering pace. First it was YouTube clips, then appearances with the mayor. Now they're on the shelves of every corner shop and immortalized in statues across the city.

Or at least that's how visitors to the Olympics might imagine the futuristic, one-eyed creatures plastered on everything from key rings to double-decker buses.

They are of course London 2012's Olympic and Paralympic mascots -- Wenlock and Mandeville. And with the Games just days away you'd better get used to seeing a whole lot more of that giant eyeball.

With their metallic bodies, built-in cameras and sci-fi genetics, it's an ambitious design aimed at the digital age.

But does it work? Are these otherworldly creatures the cutting edge of design or just plain creepy?

Described as everything from "a drunken one-night stand between a Teletubby and a Dalek," to having "just the right balance of digital zeitgeist and cheeky playfulness," it seems people still aren't quite sure what to make of London 2012's mascots.

Cute and cuddly they ain't

The Orbit Tower at London's Olympic Park was unveiled by the city's mayor Boris Johnson.
The Orbit Tower at London's Olympic Park was unveiled by the city's mayor Boris Johnson.
Orbit sculpture unveiled at Olympic Park
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Orbit sculpture unveiled at Olympic Park Orbit sculpture unveiled at Olympic Park
Famed sports photographer Neil Leifer dreamed of getting this shot of 1976 Olympic star Nadia Comaneci. Because of his determination, planning and excellent position in the gym, he did. The photo exemplifies the 14-year-old's performance at the 1976 games -- she was the first gymnast in Olympic history to be awarded the perfect score of 10. Perpendicular to the balance beam, Leifer cut out any other distractions and focused on Comaneci during a peak moment. She's practically dancing on air, performing against the dark curtain of the audience. It captures her grace beautifully and simply, and freezes her victory in time. Famed sports photographer Neil Leifer dreamed of getting this shot of 1976 Olympic star Nadia Comaneci. Because of his determination, planning and excellent position in the gym, he did. The photo exemplifies the 14-year-old's performance at the 1976 games -- she was the first gymnast in Olympic history to be awarded the perfect score of 10. Perpendicular to the balance beam, Leifer cut out any other distractions and focused on Comaneci during a peak moment. She's practically dancing on air, performing against the dark curtain of the audience. It captures her grace beautifully and simply, and freezes her victory in time.
1976: Nadia Comaneci, gymnastics
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Classic Olympic photos, and why they\'re great Classic Olympic photos, and why they're great
On the verge of collapse, marathon runner Dorando Pietri is helped across the finish line at the 1908 London Olympics. The Italian was subsequently disqualified and the title given to John Hayes of the U.S. On the verge of collapse, marathon runner Dorando Pietri is helped across the finish line at the 1908 London Olympics. The Italian was subsequently disqualified and the title given to John Hayes of the U.S.
Pushed to the limit
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The 1908 London Olympics The 1908 London Olympics

Waldi the Daschund set the standard for cute and cuddly animals as the first mascot at the 1972 Munich Games. Likewise Moscow opted for the adorable, if unimaginative, Mishka the Bear in 1980.

The Olympic mascot has always been aimed at children -- and the wallets of their parents. But it's also an embodiment of the host city's personality and a lasting legacy of its Games.

Driving all of this is a massive merchandise operation. Sure, Wenlock and Mandeville need to look good -- but they also need to sell. LOCOG are hoping to make £80 million ($124 million) from merchandise sales alone.

"I think they started as a pretty ambitious pair with real potential to be used across a new medium -- social media. But I don't think they've pulled it off completely," Mark Sinclair, deputy editor of London design magazine, Creative Review, told CNN.

"I don't think people have been able to warm to them because they're kind of severe looking with this massive eye. Maybe that's what's alienated people because they can't quite get a handle on what they are.

"They're missing a little bit of soul."

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Right. So what are they?

But maybe that's just the response from an "older, stuffier generation," as Wenlock and Mandeville co-designer Grant Hunter told CNN.

The pair were designed by marketing agency Iris and named after the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, which helped inspire Pierre de Coubertin to launch the modern Olympics, and the Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Mandeville, where the Paralympics were founded.

Supposedly created out of magical droplets of steel left over from the Olympic Stadium, every element of their design is laden with symbolism.

The taxi lights on their heads refer to London's black cabs and their origins from a steel melting pot are likened to multicultural Britain.

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Their distinctive giant eyes even have built-in cameras to record their experiences. Though in a country with one of the highest number of CCTV cameras in the world, this particular symbolism may be a little too close to home.

The children's mascot

But perhaps the most important critic is the children they were created for.

"The brief stated, 'Inspire young people to get involved with sport.' We judge the success by the response of young people to our creations," Hunter said.

"If you look at sites like the BBC's CBBC you'll see the overwhelming positive feedback that Wenlock and Mandeville have received. When you have eight-year-olds saying how cool they look and they want them to visit their school, we know we've done our job."

Mechanical objects are no less endearing than wide-eyed animals, Hunter argues, pointing to the success of Disney's Wall-E.

As nine-year-old Sunil said on the CBBC website: "I think the mascots are really cool because they look like amazing robots."

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Sinister spoofs

Some adults aren't so convinced. When Wenlock figurines dressed in police uniforms appeared on Amazon, quick-witted reviewers saw it as an opportunity to deride the "creepy" toy.

"I bought this product amidst my keenness for the Games of the XXX Olympiad," one reviewer posted.

"However when it arrived it knocked down the door in a raid, pinned me down and falsely arrested me for conspiring a bomb plot for mass murder during this summer's sporting events."

They look like a drunken one-night stand between a Teletubby and a Dalek
journalist Tabatha Southey

With the army being called in to help boost security amid the G4S crisis, and residents complaining about anti-terror missiles on their rooftops, there's already been a huge focus on London's perceived heavy-handedness in the buildup to the Games.

It's an unfortunate context for Wenlock and Mandeville, as Sinclair jokes: "Seeing that eye you're reminded you're on your best behavior, looking over your shoulder to make sure you're not wearing a Nike t-shirt in the venue."

Twitter Olympics

Regardless of your opinion on their design, there's no denying Wenlock and Mandeville's impressive social media credentials.

As momentum builds around the first "Twitter Olympics," London's mascots are well equipped with their own Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, YouTube clips and interactive website.

"We felt that previous mascots had been one-dimensional and had followed a predictable path. We knew that to connect with young people we had to create characters designed for the digital age," Hunter said.

How history remembers them is yet to be seen.

What readers think about the mascots

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