English gets the word ‘mascot’ from the French ‘mascotte’, a lucky charm. The word was in use in England for ornaments and talismans thought to bring luck to a house by the 1880s, and military regiments began adopting rams, goats or other small animals as mascots even earlier. In the early 20th century in the United States, sports teams also began using a sports mascot to bring the team luck at games, and now, many people believe that these quirky folk enhance a team’s chances of winning.
Much like some online casino enthusiasts have a lucky charm above their computer, or people wear their lucky underwear when a lottery draw is about to happen, sports mascots have become a signature symbol that teams and fans rely on.
Pros and Perils of Live Animal Mascots
One of the earliest US sides to have their own mascot was baseball team the Chicago Cubs – first with a stuffed baby bear, and later a real live bear cub. However, since so many teams take their names from dangerous predators, that fashion died out rather quickly, and the era of men playing the mascots instead, in crazy suits based loosely on animals, was born.
The first Summer Olympics to have an unofficial mascot, in Los Angeles in 1932, also went with a live-animal theme; an adorable Scottish terrier called Smokey. He’s not recognised in official records, but there are pictures of him in his ‘Official Mascot’ jacket.
In 1968, the Winter Olympics in Grenoble debuted grinning skier Schuss, and the trend of creating mascots that made good merchandising toys was born. Nowadays, for most sports teams and major international events, live animal mascots, whether dangerous or cute, are just too unpredictable.
There are still exceptions: like NFL team the Denver Broncos in Colorado, US, whose mascot Thunder is a purebred white Arabian stallion. In fact, the team is now on Thunder III; as each horse ages out and gets paler and paler, he is swopped out with an identical younger grey.
Getting It Spectacularly Wrong
Sometimes, between the concept, the drawing board and the execution, a mascot costume gets it wrong in the worst possible way. In 1968, for example, after Schuss debuted in Grenoble, Mexico City hosted the Summer Olympics and used a dove and a jaguar as unofficial mascots; very tasteful.
Then in 1986, when Mexico hosted the FIFA World Cup, the tradition of fantasy ‘cartoon’ mascots had taken hold – and the idea of a jalapeno pepper in a sombrero and Mexican team colours sounded great on paper. What ended up parading around the stadium, though, his eyes glowing in the deep shadow cast by a hat that completely obscured his face, was just creepy.
South Africa delivered a similar disappointment with Zakumi, the mascot of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The leopard with the green dreadlocks had a cheesy grin almost as scary as Russia’s recently unveiled 2018 mascot. But somehow it’s the Olympic Games that brings out the worst in mascot designers.
Perhaps the weirdest were the ‘Wenlock and Mandeville’ characters at London 2012 – which was already causing much mirth months earlier, when its bizarre logo was unveiled. But the attempted history lesson about two Olympic-relevant names got lost in the furore over the weird inflatable cyclopses that designers foisted on the characters.
Cobi, the Picasso-inspired cubist Catalan sheepdog who graced the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, gets an honourable mention too. He actually looked really good on all the printed material – in two dimensions. However, the dolls, toys and (shudder) big inflatable versions – with all their features on one side of the head, cubism-style – were just wrong.
The American Heroes
English football team Arsenal, aka ‘The Gunners’, tried a big fluffy dinosaur called Gunnersaurus as a mascot. Not to be outdone, Spanish side Valencia tried to pull the same trick with a furry football-playing bat. It seems that outside the US, nobody in modern sports consistently does mascots right.
Although that said, with mascots entrenched at every level of US sports, from school to college to pro leagues, there are also plenty of ways for American teams to get it wrong – witness the Banana Slug mascot that oozes spineless, slimy yellow magic for the University of Santa Cruz’s sports teams…
But in many US pro teams, the mascots are much more than the costume: they’re superb athletes and acrobats that add immeasurably to crowd enjoyment of a game. From the homely and child-friendly, like baseball-headed Mr. Met of the New York Mets, to the wildly athletic tumblers, like beloved basketball icon Benny the Bull of the Chicago Bulls, they become stars in their own right.
Nobody knows what flightless bird the Phillie Phanatic is supposed to be, but the big-eyed lunk always has the crowd going wild with his blow-out green tongue. He’s probably the most talked-about of the modern mascots.
It seems like as weird and wacky (and even downright disturbing) as some mascots are, they bring sports fans together in a very novel way.