Since the whole deal with the public vote for the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi began back in September, the issue seems to have been all but "non-political": from the selection of 11 emblems-finalists at the end of the solicitation period to the actual call-in and SMS vote on February 26 2011, televised on the state channel ORT. In an unprecedented move, the Sochi 2014 Olympic Committee was going to let the Russians participate in the choice of the mascots, from their creation to the very selection.
Sochi 2014 mascots. Image courtesy of The Moscow Times.
There were many controversies, yet it seems that the final five - the snow leopard, the polar bear, the rabbit, and the Ray-and-Snowflake couple - are trying to benefit from the momentum, utilizing the mysterious ways of Twitter to gain acknowledgment and popularity.
Whether official or not, the people behind these Tweets are obviously well-acquainted with the Russian Tweet-o-sphere, following not only their prime online competitor, the blue Olympic hypno-toad "Zoich" (@Z0I4), but also the Kremlin Worm (@KremlinCherv) who made some headlines back in October.
Zoich, an alternative mascot created by popular designer Yegor Zhgun, deserves special mention here. Intended as political satire, it quickly gained popularity around the RuNet and seeped in to the traditional media. After getting more than 24,000 submissions from the public (in September-December 2010), the mascot selection committee chose 11 candidates that were supposed to "campaign" throughout February before the final vote. Although Zoich did not make the cut, he got "special mention" on the unofficial online voting site and even got more support there (21,215 votes) than one of the call-in vote winners - the rabbit (10,107 votes).
Zoich. Image by Egor Zhgun, from his LiveJournal.
Zoich, perhaps more correctly spelled as "Z0I4," is derived from the mix of the numbers "2014" and the combined reading of Latin and Cyrillic characters. Its author, Egor Zhgun, is a designer and a satirist, who often provides sharp graphical commentary on his website and blog (Take a look. Highly recommended!). He told Lenta.ru that the psychedelic frog idea came from "Futurama"'s Hypnotoad, although he also tried alluding to the Russian folk tale about the "Czarevna Frog" (Russian version of the "Frog Prince" folk tale): hence the Czarist crown. In an interview with Kommersant newspaper, Zhgun said that the Olympic rings in the eyes symbolized the "promotion of Olympic ideals," while the crown referred to "nationhood and spirituality," which were among the submission criteria put forth by the committee.
Zhgun said he was surprised that, given its political connotations, his masterpiece was allowed into the general "competition" in the first place. Encouraged by its initial popularity online and the fact that the selection committee let it stay at the top of the unofficial Internet chart (which, according to him, was heavily moderated), he started harboring serious hopes and even made a video that soon went viral. Gradually, Zoich was adopted as the political opposition's symbol in the mascots' selection process. Yet, it was clear from the start that the process was not going to be all that democratic, as the selection committee was going to be the one to choose the nominees for the final round. As Zhgun predicted in his interview, the "sanitized" polar bear was among the winners precisely because of its political attributes.
As expected, the final choice of the mascots received a lot of criticism, too. Firstly, there was the issue with the polar bear. Not only was it seen as too similar to the symbol of the ruling "United Russia" party, but it was also criticized for being a rip-off of the original Moscow 1980 Olympic Misha. President Dmitry Medvedev had expressed his preference for the polar bear, which the St. Petersburg Times went as far as to suggest, was also due to his last name (derived from the Russian word for "bear" [medved']).
Can the similarities be a mere coincidence? Sochi 2014 polar bear mascot; Misha, 1980 Olympic Mascot; Logo of the United Russia ruling party. Collage by Yelena Osipova.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, did not abstain from comment, either (as usual). According to him: "The bear is the dumbest animal, the leopard is bloodthirsty, and the hare [is] a coward who always runs away."
The greatest controversy, however, seems to be surrounding the snow leopard: after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly stated his preference for the mascot on the day of the vote, its popularity skyrocketed (despite much smaller prior support), getting 28 percent of the votes and making it the callers' top choice. Funnily enough, just two days later, President Medvedev mentioned that the vote was unfair, since there was a significant "dissonance between the online and call-in voting results". In line with the President's declared commitment to modernization and innovation, Zhgun suggested that the "official" voting should have been done online.
Zoich at "Mascots Home": screenshot of the official Sochi 2014 Mascots website.
But would it be a realistic expectation to hold?
Although there was a semblance of "democracy" in the entire process, it did take on a "Russian" tinge with clearly demarcated limits of "acceptable." The fact that Zoich got so much attention - online, in the media, during the televised show on February 26, and even at the official mascots' "web home" (which, the committee said, was added to make the website "more fun") - already seems to be a sign of an unprecedented level of tolerance. But would that tolerance go as far as accepting it as the official Winter Olympics mascot? After all, even the official polling data from back in November suggested that 36 percent of the Russians would not vote for Zoich under any circumstances. Nonetheless, as a political pun, it certainly did raise some questions and, perhaps, tested some limits.
The "international image of Russia" aspect of the story is also an interesting side note here. While some online commentators seemed to be excited about the possibility of Zoich representing Russia internationally, the authorities clearly tried to manage the situation, not only largely ignoring the issue, but also providing some commentary on their international mouthpiece, Russia Today TV. Just to quote a line:
"Russian Internet is not the whole of Russia, and users from political opposition, while they are numerous, are not the whole of the Russian internet [sic]."
Whether or not it would have been a success in terms of public diplomacy is arguable. After all, a blue hairy hypno-frog would have made for great satire. But what would it say about Russia? The mascots are a symbol, and as such, were taken seriously by the authorities, and although they arguably tried keeping politics out of it, all the hype surrounding the process was bound to get political. Just as Zhgun himself told Lenta.ru when responding to a question about the point of the vote in the first place:
"[It was done] perhaps to sublimate yet another election. There was Zoich, and opposition, and all that..."
He also compared the tolerance towards Zoich to that towards Zhirinovsky, who currently serves as the Deputy Speaker of the Duma.
As for Twitter, all the five official mascots, as well as Zoich, are slowly but surely gaining a number of followers. Funny: they all started tweeting on February 26, they follow each other, have conversations among themselves, and seem to be unofficially soliciting "name" ideas for the three still anonymous mascots. Would be interesting to see where it all gets and whether any of them - especially Zoich - would be able to match the 4,000+ followers of the official account of the Organizing Committee. To do that, however, they first have to start really tweeting.
So far the polar bear seems to be in the lead, with 461 followers at the time of this writing, despite the fact that the snow leopard obviously had stronger ties "at the top."
"I am Barsik! Please call me Leo! Let's be friends and follow each other! Greetings to all from Uncle Vova!"