Even before the Centennial Olympics begin in Atlanta next week, millions of young people are familiar with one of the biggest stars of the upcoming Games: Izzy, the cartoonish blue mascot.
He has been seen countless times since he was introduced at the closing ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Some have seen him on television, featured in his own animated TV specials or as a huge balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Others may have spotted stuffed Izzys in toy stores or glimpsed his image on pins, pencils, or other merchandise.
Izzy is everywhere, but he most comes to life when someone actually dresses up as him.
Colin Mackey does exactly that. He works full-time for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games as a "mascot performer."
He is not alone, though. Fifteen people will perform as Izzy during the Olympics, July 19-Aug. 4. Mr. Mackey emphasizes, however, that while there may be many Izzy "performers," there is only one Izzy character.
During a recent interview at Atlanta's downtown Olympic headquarters, the cheerful Mackey says that the mascot performers attempt to make their portrayals of Izzy similar through the use of common gestures
To do this, they've sometimes studied videotapes of the TV Izzy during periodic training sessions. "The kids' first perception of Izzy is often what they've seen on the cartoon," Mackey says. "They're expecting to see that same kind of personality. Izzy has to keep moving, keep his energy up. He makes people laugh a lot, he's kind of mischievous, and he's definitely there to entertain."
To a large degree, being an Olympic mascot is a learn-as-you-go experience. Mackey had never been a mascot before and didn't apply for the job.
As a college student, he came to Atlanta's Olympic headquarters in 1989 as a volunteer, working summers, nights, and weekends in various capacities. "I just happened to be in the office one day when the original person they hired to portray Izzy wasn't able to make it to work. They asked me if I would fill in for him because I was about his size. I had never done anything like that before."
To present a uniform appearance, everyone who plays Izzy is roughly the same size, between 5 feet, 1 inch and 5 feet, 8 inches.
Mackey is actually the tallest. His real height gives him no problems, but as Izzy he's got to be careful not to bang his flashy eyebrows on door frames. Izzy has a huge head. He also has such thick skin that Izzy performers know that if they can't stand the heat, they'd better get out of the costume.
"We put a thermometer inside the costume once," Mackey says, "and after about half an hour it got up to 130 degrees - and that was inside an air-conditioned building." Izzy's suit, he explains, is made of a hard, heat-trapping foam.
"It's very uncomfortable," he notes, "but if just one kid's face lights up [with a smile] you forget about how uncomfortable you are."
To help cope with the oven-like temperatures, some of the mascot performers carry an unseen supply of water, with a straw that leads to their mouth. Once in costume, their four-finger Izzy hands are basically useless for anything other than "conversation."
"Izzy doesn't speak, but he definitely can communicate through motions and pantomime," Mackey says. "It takes a little getting used to because you really have to exaggerate your movements to convey emotions. To answer yes and no questions you can nod your head; otherwise, you almost have to play charades."
If anything served as a tryout for this summer's Izzy corps, it was a series of pre-Olympic sports events held last summer. They helped identify those with the communication skills, energy, and demeanor to properly represent the Atlanta Games.
A short fuse would be a liability for someone as popular with children as Izzy is.
Mackey says it's not unusual to get blindsided by enthusiastic children who hug him from the side, where his vision is very limited. "Sometimes you get hit pretty hard," he says. "The kids also love to pull the Olympic rings on Izzy's tail to see if they come off, which they don't."
During the past year, Mackey has been in charge of scheduling Izzy's many school appearances (more than 250). From his vantage point inside Izzy, he observes that "students in the poor inner-city schools and the rural schools are the ones who are usually better behaved. To them it's a treat to have Izzy visit, and they respect that."
Mascots were introduced to the Olympics in 1972, when organizers of the Games in Munich, Germany, created Waldi, a dachshund. Each summer Games since has had an animal mascot.
Atlanta wanted to break with tradition. Centennial Games organizers came up with something so different that they anticipated the response, "What is it?" So when the mascot was originally unveiled the name was Whatizit.
Whatizit was panned by adults, yet popular with children, whose input was solicited in redesigning and renaming the character. Izzy was given a red nose and an identity: He is a teenage boy sports enthusiast who can "morph" into various objects.
During the Olympics, at least two people will travel with Izzy to help with crowd control and monitor his condition. When they see him tiring, it's time to exit.
Izzy usually disappears when someone makes a speech. He also must be aware of proper protocol and be evenhanded in cheering for athletes of all countries. "Some people mistakenly think Izzy's the American team mascot," Mackey says."
Before the Olympic flame is extinguished on Aug. 4, organizers of the 2000 Games in Sydney will raise the curtain on the next Games mascot.
Will it be a wallaby or something off the wall? Izzy probably can't wait to find out.
DESIGN A MASCOT
Pretend you're a professional Olympic-mascot designer, and one day the phone rings: It's an urgent call from an Olympic organizing committee. They want to host the 2004 Summer Games, and they need a mascot. Could you try to come up with one - in three weeks? "No sweat," you reply, coolly reaching for your sketchbook and markers.
Send us your Olympic-mascot design on an 8-1/2-by-11-inch sheet of unlined paper. Use whatever medium you want - markers, pencil, crayon - but intense colors will reproduce best in our newspaper. We'll print a selection of reader designs in August.
Which city would you like to design a mascot for? Here are the ones bidding for the 2004 Olympics:
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Cape Town, South Africa
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
St. Petersburg, Russia
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Please copy this form and include it with your mascot drawing.
Be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you want your design returned.
DESCRIBE YOUR MASCOT AND WHY YOU CHOSE IT
(USE ANOTHER SHEET IF NEEDED)
GRADE ENTERING THIS FALL____________
CITY_____________________ STATE ________ ZIP CODE_____________
E-MAIL ADDRESS(if applicable)__________________________
Send your designs to: The Christian Science Monitor
The Home Forum, Olympic Mascots
1 Norway Street
Boston, MA 02115
Please mail your designs by July 30.
Questions? E-mail THOMAS @CSPS.COM