They've been branded "creepy," "grotesque" and a cross "between a Teletubby and Dalek," but Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, are proving a surprise hit with visitors and locals.
When the one-eyed creatures were first unveiled in 2010, reactions worldwide were less than kind. In New Zealand, they were compared to cellphones inhabited by evil spirits. In Canada, newspapers warned parents to keep them away from young children. America's Vanity Fair settled for "ghoulish." Even the founder of London's own Design Museum dubbed the cartoon duo "ridiculous, infantile and atrocious."
Revenge of the monstrous mascots
But now the sporty pair are laughing on the other sides of their faces (helmets? Eyeballs?). Factories in China are working around the clock to make enough Mandeville and Wenlock toys to meet demand, with staff in official Olympics stores across London reporting that plush versions of the mascots are their best-selling items. Large numbers of children are turning up to mascot-themed events, apparently not turned off by their unusual looks.
McDonald's is giving away 9 million pedometers branded with the odd couple. The more hops, skips and jumps kids make, the more "rainbow power" they accumulate to send the mascots on their journey to the Games, which begin on July 27.
Mandeville and Wenlock are also finding favor with collectors. "Mascot pins command the highest values on the collectibles market. There are very desirable pins which highlight the adorable mascots Wenlock and Mandeville from this year's London games," said Dr. Lori, the expert appraiser on Discovery Channel's "Auction Kings."
Visitors weigh in
"Adorable" might be going a step too far — or maybe not. Six-foot-high statues of Wenlock and Mandeville that have popped up around London are proving popular with visitors. The best way to find the 84 individually designed sculptures, located at key photo points around the city, is to follow one of six Stroll Discovery Trails. These walking tours are designed to highlight London's greatest sights and sounds this summer.
At Paddington Station, Mandeville is positioned alongside the much-loved bronze statue of Paddington Bear, and the Paralympic mascot is the one getting all the attention. Nine-year-old Eric, visiting from Connecticut with his mother, posed for a photo with the mascot. His opinion: "I don't really know what he's meant to be, but Mandeville is my favorite."
Bill and Nicole Claire, honeymooning from Marlborough, Mass., share his quizzical enthusiasm. "They are growing on me," Bill Claire said. "I was confused about the cyclops eye at first, but then I realized it ties in with the London Eye."
Nicole Claire added, "The more I saw them and learned about them, the more endearing they became. I bought a Mandeville fridge magnet because the proceeds benefit the Special Olympics."
Others are less impressed. The family of Ernest Rizkalla, from Cologne in Germany, was disappointed with the absence of Olympic rings on Mandeville's costume. "It's just too different," he said.
Luckily for mascot traditionalists, there is an alternative. Pride the Lion, the Team GB mascot, is a more conventional cuddly toy featuring the Olympic logo, rings and a striking lion emblem.
Pride may not sum up the 21st century spirit of London's Games like Wenlock and Mandeville, but at least he promises to make your kids scream — with delight, not fright.
Mascot facts and figures
* The first Olympic mascot was Waldi, a striped dachshund designed for the 1972 Olympics Games in Munich.
* Before Wenlock and Mandeville, the most maligned mascot in Olympic history was Izzy, a strange, multicolored creature that promoted the 1996 Atlanta Games.
* Wenlock and Mandeville's backstory: They're supposed to have been created from droplets of British steel used to build the Olympic stadium. Wenlock is named after the town of Much Wenlock, which held games in the 19th century that are said to have inspired the modern Olympics. Mandeville comes from Stoke Mandeville Hospital, which held competitions that led to the Paralympics.
* More than 100 designers, artists and agencies applied to design the mascots.
* Wenlock's bumpy head represents the three medals won in each Olympic event, and his headlamp is inspired by London's famous black taxis.
* London 2012 organizers hope the mascots bring up to 20 percent of an expected $1.5 billion in merchandise sales that will help offset the $14 billion cost of the Games.
By Mark Harris