Shera the Tiger: No medals for India's Commonwealth Games mascot
Participants in the sensational and ongoing Commonwealth Games (CWG) media roast have trained their guns solely and perhaps rightfully on the sad visage of CWG Organizing Committee Chairman Suresh Kalmadi. But in the dreadful final days leading up to the games, we have overlooked another mascot of our failure.
While there may indeed be some difference between Western and Indian hygiene standards, I believe that we have a level playing field when it comes to mascot selection, and in the spirit of the games I think we should put our capabilities to the test against the best the world has to offer.
Lest you accuse me of Delhi-bashing, I'm going to leave Sachin Tendulkar (Mumbai's mascot du jour) off the table and proceed by contrasting Shera with the recent and no less controversial emergence of another set of sporting mascots -- Wenlock and Mandeville [W+M], designed two years in advance for the London 2012 Olympics.
Introducing the world’s first ever 'International Mascot Games'
Event 1: Team selection
Competitors in this sport have the choice of going with familiar and accessible or alien and surprising. New Delhi has chosen the former, London the latter.
India: Various brands, from cereal manufacturers to paramilitary groups and political parties have co-opted the tiger as a symbol to suggest strength, agility, virility, nobility, poise and might.
As in the case of Shera, an anthropomorphic tiger, the addition of an indolent smile helps assuage any carnivorous concerns. And, as it is our national animal, this one's an obvious choice for the CWG.
United Kingdom: Wenlock and Mandeville are, quite literally, alien. As such, they represent the organizer's desire to present a unique spectacle. Their strangeness has upset many an old-fashioned Brit.
"What is it about these Games which seems to drive the organisers into the embrace of this kind of patronizing, cretinous infantilism? Why can’t we have something that makes us sing with pride, instead of these appalling computerised Smurfs for the iPhone generation?" design critic Stephen Bayley asks The Telegraph.
But kids, who are arguably their true audience, seem to respond well to the weird-as-cool message.
Result: W+M's attention-grabbing creepiness scores where Shera's cliched visage bores. Not only has the tiger mascot been recycled from our own Pune 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games (permitting design agencies to be paid double for coming up with the identical concepts of Jigrr and Shera), but the animal has also been used as an Olympic symbol before.
Shera's handlers should be aware that when it was (for Seoul in 1988) Hodori, the Amicable Tiger received a very chilly welcome with a lawsuit summons from Kellogg, the parents of Tony the Frosties Tiger.
Event 2: Pentathlon of symbolism
The five Fuwas each represent one of the feng shui elements, they are colored in the palette of the Olympic rings, each one related to a particular virtue and a blessing. They excel at one sport apiece and their names cumulatively spell out "Beijing welcomes you." Such are the deep machinations of mascot design.
India: Apart from his Indian heritage (he looks suspiciously like beefy comedian Cyrus Broacha in that too-tight-tee), Shera was apparently chosen because the government wants to double up attention being paid to the fact that there are more tigers left in Saddam's private zoo than in our forests.
To that point, the name 'Shera' comes from the Hindi word sher, which means lion.
United Kingdom: W+M are drawn from a short story by children's author Michael Morpurgo, which describes how they were fashioned from the last droplets of the steel used to build the Olympic stadium. Wenlock is named after the Shropshire town, which inspired the modern Olympics, and Mandeville is inspired by the Buckinghamshire town where the Paralympics were founded.
They are designed in the tradition of the Teletubbies, arguably the United Kingdom's most popular cultural export for children. Their getup includes a London taxi cab top, Olympic bracelets and a video camera Cyclops eye -- a subversive nod to Britain's burgeoning surveillance state.
Result: It is hard to accept New Delhi's script, which calls for Shera to represent "the modern Indian ... a 'large-hearted gentleman' who loves making friends and enthusing people to 'come out and play' [the official slogan of the games]."
The unfortunate feral connotations which do make sense at these games -- and for 'modern' India -- are the ravenous hunger and untamed greed on display and the survival-of-the-fittest mantra, which allows robber barons to grab and feast on the commonweal, with no concern for the consequences of not getting the job done.
Political opposition party BJP have even branded Kalmadi as the Shera of these games. Unintended irony gets India consolation points in this contest, as does the fact that those last drops of British steel have been produced by an Indian company.
Event 3: Commercial endurance race
In 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics turned an impressive profit and ushered in a modern money-spinning era. That event was the first to aggressively use a mascot to raise funds, and it marked the arrival of merchandise as a cash-cow focus area for sporting events organizers.
United Kingdom: The forefathers of the London Olympics have learned a lesson from the troubled unveiling of their 'edgy' logo in 2007, which was reputedly designed by Wolff Olins at a cost of £400,000.
This time around, they made it a point to clarify that the mascots cost just "a few thousand pounds," and that they were to be a responsible and important staging post from a financial and marketing point of view.
The target is for W+M merchandise to pour up to £15 million into the coffers of the organizing committee via dozens of licensing deals. And W+M are off to a running start with a well-received launch film, non-stop school visits and a choreographed plan to encourage children to interact with the characters, including a presence on Facebook, Twitter and naturally, on W+M's own website.
Did I mention this is for the 2012 Olympics?
India: Quite in contrast, just days before the scheduled commencement (whiskers crossed) of the New Delhi games, Shera has switched to the role of the vanishing tiger. You'd probably have to dig under the debris, which has become a leitmotif for this event, to find him.
The wildly escalating budget and the general air of iniquity has also sent sponsors -- mainly public enterprises who've been arm twisted into shucking up tax payers' money to support the profligacy -- scurrying for cover.
And, as of two weeks prior, the government had yet to appoint a merchandising partner, which probably means we won't be seeing Shera merchandise any time soon, not unless there are some leftovers from the Commonwealth Youth Games, that is.
Overall tally: W+M grab gold and silver, Shera bags bronze (by default)
Despite the "Bombay" crowd's natural tendency to revel in our northern cousin's misfortunes, we're all holding our collective breath, hoping that there is a miracle in New Delhi. At a minimum, it would halt Delhi denizens' planned exodus away from the scene of the crime and towards our palm-lined shores.
In the meantime, damage control measures are in full effect, amongst which has been a noticeable shrinking of Shera's visage in the news dailies.
While I'm all awash in black humor, I must also add this related piece of news: When asked about its choice for the upcoming ICC Cricket World Cup in 2011, the scandal-plagued BCCI announced that it would be bringing back India's most loved mascot -- Appu, from the 1982 Asiad -- renamed Stumpy.
Nobody in New Delhi needs reminding that Appu was a white elephant.