Bob Christianson walks into his house in Palm Harbor, Fla., and places his key chain—the one with the image of Waldi the dachshund, mascot of the 1972 Munich Olympics—into an ashtray for safekeeping. Christianson does not smoke, but he does collect, and the ashtray bears the likeness of a sheepdog named Cobi, Barcelona's '92 Olympic mascot. Christianson then washes his hands with soap from his Magique (star, Albertville, '92) soap dish, dries his hands on a Howdy and Hidy (polar bears, Calgary, '88) towel, flips on his Roni (raccoon, Lake Placid, '80) radio, wipes a Hodori (tiger, Seoul, '88) bowl with an Amik (beaver, Montreal, '76) cloth, takes out a Schneemandl (snowman, Innsbruck, '76) matchbox and lights the stove to prepare dinner. From Hakon piggy banks to Snowlet screen savers, Christianson's home is a five-ringed homage to the warm and cuddly talismen of Olympia. Almost every corner is enameled, embroidered or wallpapered with the stuff.
The 55-year-old retired insurance facilities manager is perhaps the world's foremost authority on Olympic mascots, which he began collecting 23 years ago. "Mascots are the first and most lasting recognizable connection people make to an Olympics," says Christianson, whose eight children and seven grandchildren know their holiday and birthday gifts will have Olympic themes. "They speak for the Games and their cities."
Mascot fever is also a necessary affliction for Olympic organizing committees, which raise up to a third of their revenue through merchandising sales and through fees from sponsors who use the mascots to market their products. Salt Lake City, which had planned to unveil its mascots at the closing ceremony of the 1998 Nagano Games, waited until last month to introduce a bear, a snow-shoe hare and a coyote as its mascot team. (When the committee ran the first versions by middle America 18 months ago, focus groups in Phoenix, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City gave the nominees the thumbs-down. The Salt Lake City Organizing Committee passed on a year's worth of sales rather than risk ridicule.)
"The pain and suffering inflicted on an organizing committee for a failed mascot is not easy," Laurie Olsen, communications director for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), told reporters recently. Olsen was the maligned spokeswoman for the computer-contrived Izzy, the Olympics' most notorious mascot misfire. Just what wuzzie, anyway? The amorphous blob looked like a mutant Pillsbury Doughboy. After much Izzy mockery, ACOG officials lowered its profile during the Games. Izzy was too busy to attend the opening ceremonies. Then ACOG president Billy Payne declined to pose with Izzy at the Olympic Village. Civil rights champion Andrew Young, an ACOG co-chairman, was diplomatic. "Izzy is breeding a new level of tolerance for things that look different from you and me," he said during the Games. Sales of Izzy-emblazoned merchandise stalled at $250 million, certainly less than planned.
Eight years earlier Barcelona artist Javier Mariscal introduced Cobi, the Cubist pup whose image was influenced by Picasso, Jimi Hendrix and hallucinogens. "I drew him when I was stoned," Mariscal admitted. Maybe that explained why Cobi had two eyes in profile. One dark rendition depicted Cobi as a disillusioned youth. Stung by the initial negative reaction, Mariscal snuck out of town temporarily, but the dog caught a tailwind and eventually had his own TV show.
Other organizing committees have needed relief mascots. Bad reviews spooked Albertville officials into dumping Chamois the goat in favor of the more innocuous Magique. Lake Placid's bold choice of the first live mascot, Rocky raccoon, was fine until Rocky died a year before the Games. Nagano abandoned Snowple the weasel (some think he found work at the IOC) in favor of four owls called Snowlets that appeared tipsy in beer ads and pitched everything from chopsticks to condoms. Organizers smartly limited production of plush Snowlets to a half million, which were gone before the Games began and sold on the black market for up to $200 apiece. One visiting U.S. entrepreneur charged $10 for directions to Snowlet sellers.
Serious collectors know to search for faux mascots and forgotten mascots. The 1980 Moscow Olympics had not only the ubiquitous bear, Misha, but also a seal named Vigri that was stationed only at the yachting venue in Tallinn, about 500 miles northwest of Moscow.
The prized piece in Christianson's 1,000-plus treasure trove is a miniature Schuss, the balloon-headed skier who was chosen as the first mascot for an Olympics, at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble. Christianson spotted Schuss in the window of a cigar shop on a side street in Albertville in 1992. The 300-pound collector spoke no French, and his giddy gyrations amused the unilingual shop owner on three visits. On his fourth trip Christianson brought a translator. "This man is the world's premier mascot collector," pleaded the translator. "He will give Schuss a good home." The shopkeeper relented and sold Schuss for $100. Christianson has declined 10 times that amount to part with Schuss. He also turned down $1,200 for a plush Amik he purchased for 50 cents at a Salvation Army store in Montreal.
Christianson is highly respected by those afflicted with Olympic collecting fever and has twice spoken before the IOC in Lausanne. He buys and sells at fairs and auctions and, on the Internet, on eBay. He also trades often with the IOC's Olympic Museum. Some mascot items have appreciated like Internet stocks. In 1984 at Sarajevo, Christianson spent some loose dinars on Pez dispensers depicting Vuchko, the wolf mascot of those Winter Games. The dispensers now go for $800 apiece.
At a time when scandal has cooled some sponsors' enthusiasm for Olympic association, embraceable mascots are paramount for Games organizers. "We need the mascots to be well received," says Sydney spokesman Greg Thomas, whose committee anticipates a $50 million windfall from more than $300 million in mascot sales. But instead of, say, a cute kangaroo or furry koala to represent the 2000 Games, Sydney chose an echidna and a platypus—the only mammals in the world that lay eggs—and a kookaburra (which, the dictionary says, is also known as a laughing jackass). So Izzy's inscrutability is relative.