Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is trying to showcase its quirky side. Instead, its Olympic symbols have become a laughing stock.
After two years of ridicule, London 2012’s Olympic mascots, “Wenlock and Mandeville,” have at last found some fans. This week, fast food giant McDonald's announced they would give away nine million free Olympic mascot toys modeled on the unpopular pair at their U.K. outlets, including at a vast temporary 1,500-seater restaurant planned for near the Olympic Park.
Setting aside the question of whether a monster hamburger emporium fits well with a celebration of physical prowess, McDonald's decision to endorse the Olympic mascots is a rare vote of confidence for the Games’ visual branding. So far, London 2012’s visual identity has been among the worst ever, making this year’s otherwise well-planned games something of a laughing stock. Take those awful mascots, for example. Supposedly modeled on droplets of steel fallen from the stadium, Wenlock and Mandeville’s huge cyclops eyes make them sinister rather than cute. These widely parodied robots are essentially cuddly surveillance cameras. They've also been compared to sex toys and even linked to a cult conspiracy theory.
A more serious failure is the Games’ garish dog’s dinner of a logo. A slapdash mess in acid colors, it looks like its designers have accidentally dropped it on the floor, then decided to use the shattered pieces anyway. Modeled on the numbers 2012, it’s so mangled that the Iranians have claimed to see the word “Zion” in it, while bloggers have suggested it resembles something way too crude to print here. So far, no fresh visual success has distracted the public from the logo’s disaster – even Britain’s new Olympic torch looks like a cheese grater.
So why has London 2012’s visual identity been so poor? As Stella McCartney’s kit for the British Olympic team suggests, Britain isn’t without design talent. The shadow that Beijing’s Olympics still casts could be a possible source of London 2012’s visual diffidence, as British organizers have always been aware they could not manage the shock and awe spectacle of China’s 2008 Games.
Instead, they’ve played up Britain’s quirkiness, the brand of mild eccentricity the country seems to have decided unilaterally that the world finds adorable. In place of a sleek, corporate logo, something fresh, edgy and slightly provisional-looking might have helped Britain differentiate itself effectively from its predecessor.
This approach does make some sense. One of the Olympic Park’s supposed strengths is that once the games have gone, it will switch uses seamlessly, blending quietly into London’s fabric. A sketched-in, impromptu-seeming Olympic brand identity could be argued to suit this intention. London itself is also a cobbled together, architecturally jumbled place, one whose intricate layout would give a Parisian or Manhattanite city planner a nervous tic. This has its virtues, as it makes London feel more humane than New York and less crystallized than Paris. It’s possible the logo’s designers sought to affectionately work a bit of London’s makeshift vibrancy into their symbol.
If this was their intention, they failed. Instead London 2012’s visual designers have created an impression of an Olympics afraid to look too sleek or clever. The logo seems to apologize for the ambitions of the Olympic project, overly wary of alienating taxpayers by coming across as flashy or chic (though it still cost £400,000). Now London will host an Olympic torch that appears to run on Parmesan, while its children will be spooked by bits of a broken stadium that have sprouted monstrous eyes and slunk off to haunt the nation’s Happy Meals. At least these missed opportunities all happened in a country that enjoys laughing at its own failures.
Below, a quick look at some of the more recent Olympic mascots:
Top image: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters