Snow leopard, bunny, polar bear chosen

MOSCOW -- Sochi's mascots for the 2014 Winter Olympics are a rad snowboarding snow leopard, a squeaky-voiced figure skating bunny and an earnest, slightly dorky polar bear.

The unusual decision to have three mascots was announced by Sochi organizing committee head Dmitry Chernyshenko on Saturday at the end of a nationally televised gala to choose them.

Viewers could vote from among nine candidates by phone calls and text messages. More than 1 million votes were cast, according to the program.

When the candidates were introduced to the nation in early February, there had been 10. But one of them was a representation of Ded Moroz, the Russian analogue of Santa Claus, and on Saturday officials said he had been pulled out because the mascot would become the property of the International Olympic Committee, and it was unthinkable that the gift-bearing, white-bearded man would in effect belong to someone else.

Ded Moroz was the early favorite, according to a poll conducted by the VTsIOM survey organization a few days after the candidate field was announced.

The mascots appear likely to work well as a team. They encapsulate much of Russia's ambitious self-image.

The top vote recipient was the leopard; perhaps not coincidentally, he was also the favorite of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who when president pushed for the games with such vigor that the bid overcame concerns about the necessity to build all of the venues from scratch, Russia's poor infrastructure and security worries.

In a three-minute computer-animated clip giving the leopard's "back story," he swaggers with a self-confidence not unlike Putin's own projection of machismo, and is shown trying to protect a village from an avalanche. Then he undergoes a regime of balance and strength exercises reminiscent of Putin's affection for Asian martial arts.

Notably, the snow leopard was long ago hunted out of the Caucasus region where Sochi lies, so his presence as an Olympic mascot underlines Putin's expressions of concern about Russia's environmental deterioration.

In a nationally televised meeting with students hours before the mascot vote, Putin said he favored the big cat because "the leopard is big, strong, fast and beautiful. ... If the Olympic project restores at least one segment of nature that was lost due to human activities, it will be symbolic."

The pudgy little polar bear is portrayed as a member of an Arctic exploration team, a reminder of Russia's territorial ambitions in the region, including its planting of a Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole in 2008.

The rabbit calls to mind Russia's long line of female figure skating stars and the votes she got may be a tacit expression of hopes that Russia women will regain their pre-eminence in the sport after mediocre years. The bunny, however, has a saccharine manner much at odds with the color and intensity that has characterized the country's women skaters.

The vote also chose mascots for the 2014 Winter Paralympics -- a pair of extraterrestrials, one from a planet where it's always sunny and the other from an orb of perpetual winter.

They symbolize the Sochi Games' unusual setting, where the ice sports will be held along the subtropical coastline of the Black Sea, while the snow sports will be in the soaring mountains that loom nearby.