Mascot picked for Sochi Olympics

Putin looking at a leopard as he visits the National Park in Sochi. Getty

The mascots for Sochi 2014's Winter Olympics were unveiled Saturday and, among the three winners, is a snowboarding snow leopard. With a huge, benevolent grin on his face and his snowboard always nearby, the leopard won 28-precent of the votes in an online poll open to all Russians and broadcast live on TV's "Talismaniya Sochi 2014 - The Final" on Channel One.

The other two main Sochi 2014 mascot winners are a polar bear and a hare. The use of three mascots is meant to mirror the places on an Olympic medal podium. Mascots were chosen from over 24,000 ideas submitted.

Just as snowboarding in the Olympics has always been steeped in controversy, the choice of the snowboarding leopard is now a loaded topic -- even if snowboarding has little to do with it. Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin named the leopard as his mascot preference, telling students on his visit to Sochi: "(The snow) leopard is a strong, powerful, fast and beautiful animal. Leopard species had been destroyed around here but now they are being regenerated. If the Olympic project, at least in some way, should help the local environment, then it (picking a leopard) would be symbolic."

Putin's support for the snow leopard is now being questioned because the leopard was not a fan favorite in early voting. Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, on Moscow Echo radio, said: "Just after Vladmir Putin showed his sympathy for the leopard, its votes climbed sharply... "

Blogger"titos" on the gazeta.ru web site takes things further: "It's hard to imagine a more ridiculous mascot. The snowboarding leopard was practically chosen from on high and is completely unjustified. There is nothing Russian about it."

(Meanwhile, the happy polar bear is under fire for being both a rip-off of the 1980 Moscow Olympics bear and/or a masked reference to the bear symbol of Russia's dominant United Russia party.)

The snow leopard mascot himself is always seen standing erect, like a human or meerkat. According to his official backstory (see a funny, user-translated YouTube video here), he is not only a devoted snowboarder but also, " a rescuer and mountain-climber who lives in the uppermost branches of a huge tree, on the highest peak of the snowy mountains in the Caucasus. He is always prepared to help those in need, and on a number of occasions has rescued nearby villages from mighty avalanches." Like his famous Internet countryman, Ill Mitch, a skateboarding rapper-boxer, Snow Leopard also loves to dance.

While the shredding snow leopard will surely cash in on the popularity of the Macintosh computer operating system of the same name, it is important to recognize the role of snowboarding's popularity as an Olympic sport here: In 1998, at the Nagano Games, snowboarding was a bit of an oddity, most memorable for racer Ross Rebagliati's marijuana charge. By 2002 in Salt Lake City nearly 32-percent of the US population (92 million people) watched the US Men's team's medal sweep of the halfpipe and a US woman win gold. It's generally accepted that snowboarding was rushed to the Olympic table partly to help TV ratings among younger viewers and it worked, with NBC reporting a 23-percent bump in the 18-34 demographic for '02. At Vancouver 2010, snowboarding's success continued with snowboarding a focal point of the Opening Ceremony and eventual gold medalist Shaun White deemed the most recognizable athlete at the Winter Olympics.

While we're sure Snow Leopard will be a hit with the kids, we just wonder how he is going to compete in the halfpipe with that much sidecut...