Waldi, the first Olympic mascot, turns 50

Waldi, the first Olympic mascot, turns 50
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This summer marked a significant landmark in Olympic history, although one that has gone largely unnoticed. It was the 50th anniversary marking the announcement that a dachshund would be the official mascot of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the first time that the Games would have such a symbol.

It was on July 23 in 1970 that a young wirehaired dachshund puppy was presented by Willi Daume, the President of Munich 1972, to Felix Levitan, head of the International Association of the Sports Press, at the topping out of the main competition venues at Oberwiesenfeld and he announced that this breed of dog would be the mascot. Daume also revealed that he would be called “Olympia-Waldi”.

It has been claimed that the idea of choosing a dachshund was the idea of Daume, since he owned one himself and they fitted in with his concept for the 1972 Olympics as Die heiteren Spiele – which meant “The Cheerful Games”.

But Waldi’s concept had first really taken shape the previous December, at the 1969 edition of the Organising Committee’s Christmas party, where attendees were given crayons and asked to create their idea for a mascot. Submissions included a wolpertinger, in German folklore an animal with wings, antlers, a tail and fang said to inhabit the Alpine forests of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany, and a lion. Other ideas included an eagle and characters in traditional Bavarian dress.

But Daume, aware of the connotations that were still strong in many people’s memories of the last time Germany had hosted the Olympic Games at Berlin in 1936 under Adolf Hitler and the devastation caused by the Second World War, ordered that any symbols that reminded people of his country’s recent past were banned. “The Bavarian Seppl is worn out, lion and eagle are unsuitable for advertising because of their pathos,” he said.

A dachshund was thought to be the ideal choice because they were considered tough, agile and resilient. In addition, the dachshund was considered a typical domestic animal for Munich’s citizens. Germans had originally bred dachshunds in the Middle Ages to flush out badgers and foxes from their burrows, to stop them attacking ducks and hens. The dogs’ passion for hunting was a highly prized trait.

The word ‘mascot’ originates from the French term “mascotte” which means a lucky charm. It was used to describe anything, which brought luck to a household. The word was first recorded in 1867 and was popularised by the French composer Edmond Audran. He is famous for the opera “La Mascotte” which was performed back in December 1880.

The lead opera singer in that production was so well-received that jewellers created a bracelet charm of the adored singer in her costume. The jewel was in high-demand and very popular. From then on, people believed the mascot was a form of good luck.

Before the 19th century, the word “mascot” was associated with any inanimate object that would be commonly seen such as a lock of hair or a figurehead on a sailing ship. But from then on until the present day, the term was then seen to be associated with good luck and animals.

It was 50 years ago this summer that Waldi was introduced to the public as the first official Olympic mascot ©Getty Images
It was 50 years ago this summer that Waldi was introduced to the public as the first official Olympic mascot ©Getty Images

Waldi, as he became commonly known, may have been the first “official” Olympic mascot but he was not the original. That honour had gone to a cartoon character called “Schuss” who featured at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble. He was a red ball on some skis and was created by Aline Lafargue, who had designed him in a single night.

Schuss was not actually called a mascot during the Games, but rather referred to as a character, although he appeared in an animated film and even a musical. He is not recognised as an official mascot of the 1968 Winter Olympics but can lay claim to be the forerunner and the character who really got people thinking that the Games needed something they could market and help raise valuable commercial revenue.

Similarly, the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo had a bear called Takuchan, an unofficial mascot designed by Seiko, the official timepiece of the Games. They marketed this mascot named Takuchan in its shops in the form of fabric figures, decals, bags, bath towels and many other souvenirs – exclusively in connection with the 1972 Winter Games and in combination with the official emblem.

Another sponsor of the Games was Takushoku Bank, founded in 1899 on the island of Hokkaidō, which produced the little bear as a money bank with a slot in the back of its head. Several Takuchans were produced for this series representing the figure while practising various winter sports.

Waldi, though, was the first to be given the honour of being an official mascot of the Games and to be widely marketed internationally.

Daume’s announcement that a dachshund would be the mascot of Munich 1972 was met with widespread praise in the Munich press, who had already been conducting unofficial polls to see what the public wanted with the city’s favourite dog being high among readers choices.

Selecting the choice of mascot was the easy part, getting it designed, made and marketed was always going to be the most difficult part of the project. That task fell to Otl Aicher, who had assembled a team called Dept. XI to design the look and feel of the first Olympic Games in Germany for 36 years.

He had co-founded the Ulm School of Design – Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm – a design school for architects, product and graphic designers with “a diverse education, objectivity of design methodology, and an embrace of the industrial age”. Aicher was influential to the corporate identity of the company Braun and he designed the logo for German airline Lufthansa in 1969.

Just as importantly, Aicher was not tainted by the stench of Nazism. In 1937 he had been arrested for refusing to join the Hitler Youth. Later he was conscripted into the German army to fight during the Second World War, although he made several attempts to leave the army. Eventually, an opportunity presented itself and he deserted the army. The Scholl family, who were well-known anti-Nazi political activists, let him hide at their residence in Wutach until after the War ended in 1945.  

Designers wanted to make Waldi more than just a souvenir so he came in a variety of different materials ©Flickr
Designers wanted to make Waldi more than just a souvenir so he came in a variety of different materials ©Flickr

When first approached by Daume about turning the dachshund into a mascot for the Olympics, Aicher was at first unsure before agreeing to include it into his integration for the visual look of the Games.

Aicher gave the task of designing the mascot to Elena Winschermann, a member of his Dept. XI team he had originally taken on as an intern when she was a teenager. Aicher’s instructions included ensuring that this copy avoided similarities with the many other toy dachshunds on the market, and for it to be more of a toy than a souvenir.

Other criteria laid out by Aicher was that all the Waldis to be manufactured must have the same colour, the official Munich blue. The sections that make up the body should also have between three and six separate colours. Waldi appeared vertically striped in a variety of the pastel colours used in the Olympic Stadium, colours that were intended to represent individual sports, national flags and even the uniforms of Games personnel. Aicher vetoed red and black, colours identified with the Nazis. Design simplicity enhanced the appeal of the multicoloured canine.

Waldi was also not allowed to be produced shorter than 12.5 centimetres so that the emblem, the spiral and five rings, could always be seen on the chest. His inventors hoped that the minimum size would also prevent him from losing his toy character and being misused as a kitschy mini figure.

“It is important for us to avoid the unfortunately all too common kitsch and the embarrassment this brings with it, and to find a ‘surprisingly appealing dachshund’, Winschermann wrote in an internal memo reproduced in Mark Holt’s excellent book Munich ’72. The Visual Output of Otl Aicher’s Dept.
X.

“Our job is to develop a standard version of the dachshund but right from the start we have to remember that it has to be presented in 3D.”

An earlier prototype of a dachshund mascot for Munich 1972 “Lumpi” was manufactured by German company Knautschi. Made of beanie-bag type material and including a white leather tag with Olympic rings and “1972 Munchen” printed below. A leather tag was attached to a chain and rested around the neck of the mascot. There were plastic eyes and a plastic nose with a manufacturer’s stamp on the bottom.

Less than 10 of “Lumpi” were made and he is now considered the Pete Best of Olympic mascots, the drummer sacked by The Beatles before they achieved worldwide fame.

The plan was to produce Waldi in several different materials, including wood, plastic, fur fabric and rubber. The Olympia-Waldi concept was presented to the media in January 1971, and generally was well received. The Munich 1972 Organising Committee appointed two marketing agencies to licence Waldi.

The Atlas Publishing House was based in Munich and the Cremota advertising and sales promotion agency in Frankfurt. In addition, 12 toy manufacturers were asked to produce prototypes. Plus, apart from the 3D version of Waldi, there were plans for his image to appear on a whole range of products, including paper bags, stickers, posters, cushions, puzzles and badges.  

Olympic mascots today are generally associated with plush toys but the first Waldi to be manufactured was in wood. It was surprisingly produced by Steiff, a German company famous around the world for making teddy bears. They had wanted to make a plush version but Aicher and Winschermann resisted.

In the end, despite its worldwide reputation for soft toys, Steiff never did manufacture any plush version of Waldi. They did, though, make a 23cm and 43cm long version of Olympic Waldi in dralon, a synthetic plush material that was very common on Steiff play animals of the time.

It was not just Steiff who wanted to produce a plush version of Waldi, top Munich 1972 officials were also pushing for a soft toy to be manufactured as soon as possible. “In the Organising Committee it was, of course, the legal and financial departments who were really very keen for everything to be made of fur fabric,” Winschermann told the Olympic Museum in an interview. “Mr Aicher and I wanted it to be specific, high-end object but not too high that it became a design object.”

A wider range of Waldis were presented at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in February 1971, including a large one made of fabric, an inflatable one, a very small bendy one made of soft plastic, and the one from the wood.

The first signs that having a mascot for a major global event could help generate much-needed funds had come at the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England with the commercial success of “World Cup Willie”, a cartoon lion.

World Cup Willie had been designed by Reg Hoye, an unassuming, bespectacled illustrator from Marlow, who was paid only a one-off fee for his efforts. Hoye – who worked with fellow artist Richard Culley – had previously produced illustrations for Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, as well as the BBC’s Dr Who and The Daleks.

“A lion with a Beatle haircut, a Union Jack jersey and an address somewhere in Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park,” wrote the Daily Mirror when World Cup Willie was publicly introduced to the public in July 1965, a year before the tournament kicked-off.

As 1966 began, The Sunday Times reported that £4 million ($5.3 million/€ 4.5 million) worth of goods, “all stamped with some sort of World Cup insignia would flood the market”, with the Football Association expected to earn more than £200,000 ($267,000/€224,000) in royalties. Initial interest in Willie was modest, but England’s unexpected tournament triumph got the cash tills ringing.

It was World Cup Willie, the symbol of the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England, that first showed what a powerful marketing tool a mascot could be for major events ©Getty Images
It was World Cup Willie, the symbol of the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England, that first showed what a powerful marketing tool a mascot could be for major events ©Getty Images

In the wake of England’s historic 4-2 win over West Germany in the final, applications flew in for licences – more than 120 – from France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Holland and the Soviet Union. Within weeks, in excess of 10 million items were rolled out.

With the demand for goods so high, World Cup Willie merchandise flew off the shelves almost quicker than they could be made. That often came at the expense of quality control. As there was no approved style guide to follow, poor Reg Hoye had to draw Willie to order.

Aicher ensured that more quality control was maintained over Waldi. But so popular was Waldi, that even he could not stand in its way. Winschermann told Mark Holt in Munich ’72. The Visual Output of Otl Aicher’s Dept.
X that there were several versions of Waldis they did not approve and that they only developed five to eight types.

A total of 50 licences at a minimum of 245,000 deutschmarks and of up 458,000 deutschmarks to use Waldi was granted by the Munich 1972 Organising Committee and it is estimated that there were about two million Waldis sold in more than 20 countries. A total of 15 different versions of Waldis were planned, some with a wagging tail or nodding head, some on wheels and many on keyrings. Strangely, however, a pin featuring Waldi did not come out until several years after the Olympics had finished.

Waldi also unwittingly found himself a symbol of what many German citizens regarded as the Organising Committee’s monetary gigantism. After the budget for the new Olympic Stadium rocketed from $3.5 million (£2.6 million/€2.9 million) to $65 million (£49 million/€55.5 million), angry Munich taxpayers displayed posters featuring Waldi using the Olympic Tower as a fire hydrant to urinate on.

Overall, however, Waldi was hugely commercially successful and even today his likeness appears regularly on internet retail sites, often selling for three-figure sums.

The huge success of Waldi ensured that every Olympic Games from then on would have a mascot. Some have had as many as five. The mascots have come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from cuddly animals synonymous with the country the Games are taking place, like Misha the bear at Moscow 1980, to the computer generated blob Izzy at Atlanta 1996 to Wenlock and Mandeville, the London 2012 mascots who were supposed to have been created from drops of steel. Whatever they are, mascots have become key components of each Olympic Games’ unique brand.

Aicher’s influence on the Olympic Games did not end with the mascot. When he was appointed as the lead designer for the event in Bavaria’s capital, the instruction he received from the organisers included that the design must complement the architecture of the newly built space-age stadium in Munich.

Pictograms were developed for Munich 1972 with the intention of presenting a visual interpretation of the sport the venue featured. This careful creation of pictograms helped athletes and visitors find their way around the Olympic Village and Stadium. He made use of the Univers typeface for the Olympic designs.

It was designer Otl Aicher who helped play a crucial role in the creation of Waldi for Munich 1972 ©Getty Images
It was designer Otl Aicher who helped play a crucial role in the creation of Waldi for Munich 1972 ©Getty Images

In fact, Aicher’s technique of representation through design was adopted by the United States Department of Transportation as they developed the DOT pictograms in 1974. Soon this signage was used publicly around the globe, for instance for toilets and telephones.

Aicher was killed at the age of 69 in 1991 when he was struck by a vehicle while mowing the grass.

Waldi’s symbolism also did not end with just the various toys and souvenirs produced in his image. Even the marathon course through downtown Munich followed the dog’s outline with runners starting at the back of the neck and racing counter-clockwise around the head, legs and belly to the tail, thence along the back until exiting into the Olympic Stadium where the United States’ Frank Shorter crossed the line first to claim the gold medal.

The enduring love affair between Bavarians and the dachshund was confirmed in April 2018 when the world’s first museum devoted to the breed opened in Passau.

The real Waldi, from a well-known breed in Fürstenfeldbruck-Maisach, the one that had been presented by Daume in July 1970 to Felix Levitan, went to live in Paris, where Madame Levitan took him for daily walks on the boulevards. Together with Monsieur Levitan, Waldi was of course invited to the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games on August 26 1972 in the VIP box – all other pets were banned.



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