National Geographic
Menu

Meet the Animals Behind the Mascots of the 2014 Winter Olympics

A photo of the Sochi mascots
Statues of the 2014 Winter Olympic mascots stand on display in downtown Sochi on February 1. Photograph by B. Streeter Lecka, GETTY

When the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, kick off with the opening ceremony this Friday, a leopard, a hare, and a polar bear will be among those gathering with athletes, dignitaries, and journalists. But fear not, these four-legged animals are Sochi’s official mascots. Leopards, hares, and polar bears are found in Russia, and each possesses characteristics like speed, strength, and agility—along with a wintery aspect—that suits their inclusion in the Winter Games.

Naturally, in this day and age, the mascots have their own website and a Facebook page that has quickly racked up 20,000 “Likes.” Heck, you can even buy plush toy versions of the mascots on Amazon, and folks have been spotted wearing hare-shaped hats. But what’s so special about these animals? Read on as we introduce the real animals behind Sochi’s mascots.

The Leopard

A photo of a snow leopard.
A remote camera captures an endangered snow leopard.
Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

At some point in the run-up to this year’s Winter Olympics, the leopard on Sochi’s promotional materials went from being a white snow leopard to a more generic tan one. This change is perhaps more inclusive since Russia has historically been home to multiple species of leopards, including the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor), which once inhabited the Western Caucasus around Sochi and which Vladimir Putin recently vowed to restore to the region.

But the big cat that’s perhaps most winter-appropriate is the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). The cat is found far to the east of Sochi in the mountain ranges of Central Asia. These days, of the approximately 2,000 to 6,000 snow leopards thought to exist, the vast majority are found in China and Mongolia, said James Gibbs, a conservation biologist at State University of New York in Syracuse. Gibbs estimates there are only 20 to 40 snow leopards living in the wild within Russia, although that’s a rough estimate since snow leopards are extremely elusive and roam great distances. (See “Rare Pictures: Snow Leopards Caught in Camera Trap.”)

The snow leopard is officially protected in Russia, so hunting them is illegal. But that doesn’t stop poachers from setting snares, which has had a devastating effect on snow leopard populations.

The cats also face a dwindling supply of prey—primarily a goat relative called the ibex. The ibex fall victim to poaching as well as displacement by livestock, added Gibbs.

While there’s some evidence that the Russian snow leopard population has recovered slightly in the past few years, Gibbs says it remains critical. “I’d say it’s an absolute bare minimum for recovery with some concerted effort,” he said.  ”[The population numbers] can’t go much lower before it falls apart.”

The games themselves may provide a glimmer of hope. Gibbs is cautiously optimistic that the attention generated by the Winter Olympics will result in increased efforts to aid the snow leopard.

“I’m extremely hopeful. The more publicity the better,” said Gibbs. “The next step is really difficult: to get good intentions to translate to things on the ground.” Gibbs said that would entail “providing alternative livelihoods and poverty alleviation” to help curb poaching, along with increased patrols and efforts to remove snares, and increased logistical support for biologists.

 The Hare

A photo of a hare.
An arctic hare in its winter coat sits on the tundra.
Photograph by Peter Caims, Foto Natura, Minden Pictures/Corbis

Contrary to popular belief, hares are not rabbits, although they are related. Hares are generally larger, with longer ears and taller hind legs. Russia is home to several species of hares, including the arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), although this species is more common in North America.

The mountain hare (Lepus timidus) is found all over Russia, from its border with Scandinavia to the farthest reaches of Siberia. The animal is often found at elevations thousands of meters above sea level. It’s normally brown during much of the year, but in the winter months the mountain hare molts until its fur is so white that it resembles the arctic hare. At one point they were considered to be the same species.

While they may not have the brawn of the other mascots on this list, hares are fast, with the ability to move up to 40 miles (60 kilometers) per hour. Further, as a species they’re doing quite well for themselves. The IUCN’s Red List currently lists them as a species of “least concern,” meaning population numbers are doing well. Good news for the mascot and hare fans alike.

 The Polar Bear

A photo of a polar bear.
A polar bear stands on a melting ice floe on a summer evening.
Photograph by Paul Souders, Corbis

If wrestling were a winter sport, the polar bear would be a good bet to come away with a medal. Few creatures anywhere can match Ursus maritimus in size and strength. An adult male can weigh up to 1,500 pounds (nearly 700 kilograms).

With a range confined mostly to the Arctic Circle, polar bears generally eat seals, but they have been known to hunt everything from fish and reindeer to geese. Since they’re uniquely adapted to the Arctic environment, polar bears are particularly sensitive to climate change. This has made them an important symbol for the impacts of those changes, said Linda Gormezano, a polar bear researcher with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“I think it’s great,” Gormezano said of the polar bear’s selection as one of Sochi’s mascots. The negative effects of climate change on the polar bears’ icy habitat is indicative of climate change’s effects on many other species around the world, she added. “So if including polar bears as a mascot brings awareness to this issue, then it’s a good thing for sure.”

The IUCN lists polar bears as “vulnerable,” although some populations are more threatened than others. Like the snow leopard, polar bears in Russia are protected by law but face pressures from illegal poaching as well as changes in their habitat.

So, for the next two weeks while all eyes are trained on the human struggles in figure-skating and snowboarding, I hope people will also spare a thought for Sochi’s wintery mascots and the noble but vulnerable species they represent.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.

Are you in Sochi for the Olympics this year, or enjoying them at home? Share your photos with the Your Shot community using #SOCHI2014.

Comments

  1. ryan
    Hamilton nz
    March 5, 7:00 pm

    thank for the fact I need to no that for my homework

  2. sue griffiths
    canada
    February 25, 1:42 pm

    I am amazed that Russia decided to use Animals as the mascots for the games at the same time they were ordering a culling and execution of thousands of stray dogs and cats. Hypocrites would be the word I would use. In one sentance they say the animals are important, important to be the mascots for a world viewed event, and the next, they say cats and dogs are a nusiance and should be executed so the tourists dont have to see them. ALL animals deserve the same respect! NOt just those that are cute or specific to a certain region or on the verge of extintion because of HUMANS. Our world is boarder line of being extint due to HUMANS< but I dont see anyone suggesting we start killing off nations to presreve the rest of the world. We are all living beings and we all need to stop playing god with the lives of animals.

  3. Pat
    MA
    February 23, 10:39 pm

    That’s not a polar bear! First he is brown not white plus there is political history behind the bear symbol and Russia and previously the USSR. They used the same mascot
    in 1980 when it was a communist country.

  4. Robert
    Canada
    February 18, 9:37 pm

    Finally! Someone comes up with some decent mascots! Much better than some of the lame/creepy looking ones in past games.

  5. Steph
    Nebraska
    February 15, 11:20 am

    My son read a novel series named “Flurry the Bear” and the Sochi Olympic mascot looks like they TOTALLY ripped it off. Their version is inferior, but I think they seriously infringed on copyrights there.

  6. Jacob
    ca
    February 12, 1:53 pm

    thanks for the article. We had to do an article on the cultural meaning. and hares are rabbits tho.

  7. Samantha
    February 12, 10:05 am

    yea, well I love the polar bear

    wooooooooooooooowwwwwwwww

  8. Cathy
    60 seaboard gate
    February 11, 9:38 am

    Soooooooooo cute

  9. howard
    February 8, 8:56 pm

    hares are not rabbits
    wow

  10. ginny maczko
    ca
    February 7, 10:56 pm

    so cute

  11. Mary
    February 7, 2:35 am

    Thank you for this article – these beautiful animals really deserve our attention and care