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Olympic mascots white tiger, bear inspired by Korean origin story

By Jennie Oh
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Olympic mascots white tiger, bear inspired by Korean origin story
Tourists pose for a photo with the official mascot Soohorang the white tiger prior to the start of the Games. Photo by Richard Ellis/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Meet Soohorang and Bandabi, the mascots of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

Cute, rounded and full of beans, a snowy white tiger called Soohorang and his kindly looking friend Bandabi the bear may be among the most lovable mascots in the history of the Games.

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Lee Hee-gon, head of Mass C&G, which developed the mascots, said it was all about making the characters come to life through various forms of storytelling.

"Suhorang is strong and fearless with a spirit of challenge. He is also full of curiosity and loves people in general. He's resilient in the cold and likes winter sports," Lee told UPI.

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The energetic white tiger's name is a portmanteau of the Korean words for protection (sooho) and tiger (horang-i). The tiger has been associated with Korean people throughout history, appearing in folklore as well as paintings and sculptures.

Soohorang is in fact the second tiger to serve as an Olympic mascot in South Korea. At the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, the official mascot was a red Siberian tiger called Hodori.

Lee said his team did feel some pressure designing another tiger given Hodori's popularity. However, they took inspiration from the former mascot's minimalistic but powerful features. "You can say the spirit of Hodori lives on in Soohorang. The designer of Hodori, Mr. Kim Hyun was a member of the advisory committee and he gave us valuable pointers," he said.

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Meanwhile, Bandabi, the Paralympic mascot, was inspired by the symbolic animal of Gangwon Province, the wider region where Pyeongchang is located.

"Bandabi has a big heart full of warmth. His merits are strong will, endurance and courage. Also, she is trustworthy with a solid personality. She lives in Gangwon-do where the mountains meet the sea and also enjoys winter sports," Lee said.

His name is a combination of bandal, meaning half-moon, and bi, which means celebration in Korean.

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While previous Winter Games tended to spotlight the Olympic mascot, the Pyeongchang Games gives equal weight to Paralympic mascot Bandabi to tell a story of friendship.

The symbolic significance of the tiger and the bear and their companionship dates back millenniums to the mythical founding of the Korean nation.

According to the legend, a bear and tiger lived in a cave together and prayed to the heavens to become human beings. After receiving the mission to keep out of daylight and eat sacred food for a given time, the tiger gave up after about 20 days. However, the bear persisted and turned into a woman, and gave birth to the founder of Korea.

The tiger and the bear's contrasting personalities in the age-old tale strike up a harmonious balance, inspiring the chemistry between the two Olympic mascots.

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"Soohorang is always curious and easily excitable, bounding left and right, but Bandabi is calm and collected, holding Soohorang back by the hand," Lee said.

Coming up with the characters took considerable time but developing the designs took more than two years of trial and error.

The two mascots had to be optimized for different angles, dimensions and movements to feature in various media platforms.

Lee said an Olympic or Paralympic mascot has never been so digitally advanced.

Through emoticons, virtual reality games, action-packed animations and life-size figures on the streets, Soohorang and Bandabi display scores of varying emotions and movements, kitted with nifty equipment for every sports category in the Games.

"3D animations require detail to the point where you can pick up each and every hair on the character while making its movements smooth and dynamic. In reverse, if you flatten 3D characters into emoticons, they look awkward as they should be simple while very expressive, with smooth lines and movements," Lee said.

"Everything had to be simplified but also abundant in expression. We had to take these contrasting factors and make them compatible," he said.

The end result was a sleek and dynamic duo with a burst of cheer and charm.

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With the Olympics looming, Soohorang and Bandabi have seen roaring popularity among South Koreans.

They appear on subway screens, the back of city buses and life-size figures of them stand in public areas.

The 200,000 sets of limited edition emoticons released last year were all snapped up in a matter of hours.

More than 100,000 official mascot dolls have been sold, the PyeongChang Olympic Organizing Committee said last week.

Lee said it is now time for Soohorang and Bandabi to shine as the Olympics begins but he hopes their legacy will continue long after the Games are over.

"Japan has the moving cat, China has the Panda but Korea doesn't have a symbolic animal. But now, given the public's affection for Hodori and Soohorang, we can say for sure that the tiger represents our country," he said.

The International Olympic Committee holds the licensing rights to the mascots and gaining permission to use them is likely to prove tricky but Lee remains hopeful for a breakthrough.

"Soohorang and Bandabi will live on."

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