In February 2011, the Sochi Games organizing committee announced the results of a nationwide contest to determine the mascots for the upcoming Winter Olympics. The voters chose three thematically appropriate mascots: a polar bear, because winter is cold; the European hare, a symbol of fertility, presumably to honor all the sex that will be had in the Olympic Village; and a leopard, because Vladimir Putin likes leopards. But, as it turns out, the voters also chose a fourth mascot that was just as thematically appropriate, albeit in a completely different way. That mascot was absent from the final tallies. That mascot is Zoich.
From the beginning of the contest until its conclusion, Zoich—a weird blue frog with a ski pole in its mouth and hypnotic rotating eyes—was by far the popular mascot. Zoich was also a fraud—a faux-underground candidate dreamed up by the contest’s organizers to stoke online interest in the mascot derby. The story of Zoich is almost too strange to be true. And it’s something you should keep in mind if you really want to understand these odd Olympic Games.
In 2010 the Sochi organizers asked the Russian designer Yegor Zhgun to create a mascot for the online contest. They wanted something “arbitrarily absurd and bizarre,” something that might attract various online meme brokers and make the contest go viral—and they offered Zhgun full artistic control over his entry. Zhgun came up with Zoich. The froglike creature was introduced first with a drawing and then with a stylish and strange YouTube video described as “an epic trailer for the classic epic movie titled ‘What would happen if Zoich won.’ ”
As Zhgun later admitted, Zoich was inspired by the Futurama character Hypnotoad, star of an in-universe television program called Everybody Loves Hypnotoad. The title is accurate, if only because Hypnotoad uses his hypnotic eyes to mesmerize viewers into loving him. Apparently this metaphor resonated with a populace that was being force-fed a horrendously expensive Olympics by the government. Zoich, originally believed to be a mischief-making countercultural character rather than one birthed by the Sochi organizers, soon became the most popular mascot on the list.
"The politicians are convinced that they can manipulate the internet community, and the internet community is convinced of the opposite. Thus, at the moment, the leader in the vote for the Sochi mascot is a charming creature named Zoich," wrote Anastasia Reznitchenko at itogi.ru. "It is clear, however, that a significant portion of any such vote is cast as a protest vote." (Translations by Serge Mezhburd and Chris Barker.)
Perhaps contest participants did indeed see a vote for Zoich as a vote against Putin and Sochi. Perhaps, being Internet nerds, they just liked the Futurama reference. Regardless, the committee’s plan worked: Zoich was a hit. "Zoich spread through the country like wildfire," wrote Jaroslav Zagorets in lenta.ru in 2011. "Staring into the hypnotic, loyal eyes of this weird furry toy, we were conquered by its magnetic inner strength." The toad inspired fan art, media coverage, and scores of Internet comments. When the polls closed, Zoich was on top.
But when the finalists were announced, Zoich was nowhere to be found. “Notwithstanding Zoich's popularity, we were aways mindful that our main goal was to choose a mascot appropriate for the national mass audience,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the Sochi 2014 organizing committee. “And a shaggy toad cannot lay claim on being the official mascot of the Games.”
Voters were disappointed—and they were even more disappointed when a Russian newspaper reported that the country’s Olympic committee owned the rights to Zoich. Eventually, Zhgun admitted that he had been working in concert with the Olympic committee the whole time. “I'd propose looking at this story from a positive angle,” said Zhgun after the scheme was exposed. “This is an example of innovation that everyone talks about -- to innovate, it is necessary to come up with an unusual idea and try to implement it ... well, OK, it is possible to lump this together with [negative information regarding the activities of the organizing committee] and think ill of the entire Sochi Games. But in my view, the story of Zoich is, by itself, great”
That’s one way to think about the Zoich story: a clever piece of online guerilla marketing from an organization not known for its lateral thinking. The frog is a tribute to the creativity of Russian designers and the merits of free artistic expression, sort of. “No one could have predicted the existence of such flexible thinking in such a monumental organization,” wrote Zagorets. “And yet this clever trick broke my heart. Protest, even if in jest, cannot be implemented from the top, because that kills the idea of protest.”
And that’s the other way to think of the Zoich story. There were lots of protest candidates in the mascot contest, submitted by designers who were legitimately upset over the excesses of the Putin regime and the Sochi effort—like this anthropomorphic saw, which was a not-so-thinly veiled comment on embezzlement and the rising cost of the games. By putting forward its own blue, furry “protest” candidate, the organizers undermined and marginalized these other, harder-edged protest mascots. This partially explains why Russia left Zoich alone for so long, even after Zhgun’s YouTube video positioning Zoich as a totalitarian mascot dictator hypnotizing the public into complying with its wishes.
In 2011 Zhgun told lenta.ru that he fully expected Zoich to be removed from the contest soon after its debut. The interviewer asked Zhgun if perhaps Zoich survived because the organizing committee didn’t understand the irony. “I thought so, too,” he said. “Then I realized that this opposition mascot is better for them than, for example, a saw. Maybe they saw Zoich the way they see Zhirinovsky.” That’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a clownish Russian politician and general nuisance who makes a lot of noise but is no real threat to anybody. When attention gets focused on things that are silly, there’s no time left for things that are serious.
And so maybe Russia doesn’t actually care if the visiting media focuses on the clownish aspects of Sochi, on the ramshackle hotels, stray dogs, and unfamiliar toilets. Maybe that stuff just serves as a decoy for media who might otherwise be writing about the real dysfunction in Russia. All glory to Zoich, indeed.