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Gold, Silver, Bronze, Plush

Why the winners in Pyeongchang are hoisting stuffed tigers in triumph.

At the end of Saturday’s men’s slopestyle competition, American gold medalist Red Gerard joined the silver and bronze winners for the traditional post-event victory ceremony. As Gerard and Canadians Max Parrot and Mark McMorris stood on a podium, International Ski Federation executive Dean Gosper approached each athlete with the reward they’d worked their whole lives to earn: a white and black stuffed tiger in a tiny hat.

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This particular fake-out—audience expects medal, athlete gets plush tiger, audience does double-take, audience wonders if there are still medals, audience wonders where to buy plush tiger, audience pays $54.90 for “2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Official Mascot 11” Doll Soohorang” on Amazon—has been repeated over and over at the post-event “venue ceremonies” at the Pyeongchang Games. It is incredibly disorienting, like watching a real-life Snapchat filter that superimposes cute animals over gold, silver, and bronze medals. The tigers have popped up at the women’s moguls freestyle skiing ceremony:

Canada’s Justine Dufour-Lapointe, France’s Perrine Laffont, and Kazakhstan’s Yulia Galysheva celebrate on the podium during the victory ceremony after the women’s moguls final event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Phoenix Park in Pyeongchang on Sunday.

At the men’s luge singles ceremony:

Chris Mazdzer (silver) of the United States, David Gleirscher (gold) of Austria, and Johannes Ludwig (bronze) of Germany celebrate at the flower ceremony following the luge men’s singles on Day 2 of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Olympic Sliding Centre on Sunday.
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At the men’s sprint biathlon ceremony:

Arnd Peiffer of Germany celebrates winning the gold medal during the victory ceremony after the men’s 10km sprint biathlon on Day 2 of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Alpensia Biathlon Centre on Sunday.

You get the picture. The victorious athletes are hoisting plush tigers when you’d expect them to be hoisting medals, and the reason for this switch is not immediately clear. Have the Olympic medals been replaced with stuffed animals for some reason? If they have been replaced, can I have all those unused medals for my personal use?

No and no! Gerard and his fellow victors will indeed receive actual Olympic medals. The post-event, plush doll–laden venue ceremonies are just preludes to the real thing. In keeping with Winter Olympics tradition, the actual medals for the day’s winners are distributed at a single nightly celebration, which in Pyeongchang takes place at the unimaginatively named Medals Plaza. Yes, in the Summer Olympics, the victors often received their medals immediately after their events concluded—but the Summer Olympics are also much larger than the Winter Games, and a nightly summer medals ceremony would be truly interminable.

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Why stuffed tigers? The plush animals are replacements for the floral bouquets traditionally given to modern Olympic victors. The bouquets were themselves nods to the olive wreaths that Olympic champions received in antiquity. This nice and historically relevant tradition bit the dust at the 2016 Rio Games, when, citing sustainability concerns, the Rio organizers decided to dump the flowers and instead give the winners little “resin, polyresin, and PVC” sculptures of the Rio Olympics  logo. (Just like the polyresin sculpture the Greeks gave to Onomastus of Smyrna!)

Gold medalist Inbee Park of South Korea poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for women’s golf at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Golf Course on Aug. 20, 2016.

Given that the entire Olympics enterprise necessarily requires the erection of a bunch of massive buildings that will inevitably be left to rot once the festivities conclude, I’m not sure replacing flowers with stuffed animals will really move the needle. But the tigers are cute! And they do at least nod to the Olympic floral tradition, in that each tiger comes with paper flowers attached to its tiny hat. I guess paper flowers on a tiny hat are better than no flowers on a tiny hat. (The paper flowers are historically grounded, too: According to the official website of the Pyeongchang Games, they represent “ ‘Uhsahwa,’ a paper flower that was bestowed to those who passed national exams during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).”)

The plush tiger is a representation of Soohorang, the mascot of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Soohorang is one of the better Olympic mascots I’ve seen—the official Olympic website says the beast “not only has a challenging spirit and passion, but is also a trustworthy friend who protects the athletes, spectators and all the participants of the Olympic Games.” Thank you, Soohorang, for ensuring my safety over the next two weeks.

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