Tuesday, August 10, 2004

ATHENS — They are getting more bad press than the Olsen twins and worse reviews than the latest Spike Lee flick. Olympic mascots Phevos and Athena, siblings named for a pair of Greek deities, are catching an ungodly amount of abuse around Athens.

They were derided in various news articles, described as animated condoms and mutants from a nuclear meltdown. Their names were co-opted by anti-Olympic activists, who promptly firebombed two government vehicles in February.

Oh, my gods, where did things go wrong?

It’s hard to say. The mascots were not the vision of a single artist, such as the Spanish stoner who conjured Barcelona mascot Cobi — squiggled in about four seconds — while in a state of drug-induced bliss.

Nearly 200 entries were submitted when Athens organizers put out the call for prospective mascots. The winning creatures were created by a team of six, including a philologist/historian. They were billed as two kids, brother and sister, “full of vitality and creativity, perhaps mischievous and hence lovable.”

Their bloodlines were impeccable, too.

Phevos was named for Apollo, the Greek god of light and music. Athena, the host city’s namesake, was the goddess of wisdom. Yet the result was less then heavenly.

How to describe the pair?

Their bodies are built like an inverted funnel: Narrow at the neck, extra-wide at the bottom, more Oliver Hardy than Mount Olympus.

Their feet are supersized Shaq-enormous, yet hold only four tiny toes. Their outfits — his blue, hers orange — resemble off-the-rack discount caftans. Or robes from a weird order of monks.

Their hands, like their feet, feature four digits — although the fingers never see the sun because the mascots’ outfits inexplicably stretch right to their fingertips. Creative director Spyros Gogos, who declined interview requests, has said their shape was inspired by a bell-shaped Greek doll from seventh-century B.C.

The locals have accepted Phevos and Athena, whose visage graces everything from key rings to children’s clothes. Although there’s no sign of the pair in the main Olympic stadium, pictures of the siblings greet arrivals at the media village with a cheery message: “Welcome Home.”

And in the pantheon of Olympic mascots, the Greek duo remains head and shoulders — if they actually had shoulders — above the most-reviled Olympic mascot ever, Izzy of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

Organizers of the opening ceremony kept the computer-generated Izzy on the sidelines, as did the producers of the closing ceremony. Izzy was short for Whatizit, and there were plenty of answers for that.

NBC announcer Bob Costas maligned the mascot as “a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong.”

Few disagreed.

It’s too late now, but the Greeks could have gone for reality over mythology in their mascots. How about BALCO, god of enhanced performance?

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