But for a time, the HypnoToad-like cartoon character was the town's most popular symbol. In an online, national competition to select Sochi's mascot, the very weird Zoich skyrocketed to first place within minutes of his debut. He stayed there until he, along with thousands of other submissions, were culled in favor of a handful of official finalists for the job. And although Zoich's rogue candidacy initially read as a complication for Russian officials trying to keep the games shenanigans-free, the Russian Olympic Committee actually commissioned Zoich as a "guerrilla" campaign to promote the contest he was supposedly subverting.
At first, Zoich seemed to be a wrench in the well-oiled machine of Sochi's mascot selection. As it turns out, he was a cog. In 2010, the Russian Olympic Committee secretly commissioned Zoich's maker to do something "viral" for the games, in order to attract younger voters to their online mascot selection competition. Well-known Russian artist Yegor Zhgun agreed to take the deal with Russian officials in exchange for payment and a promise of complete creative control. Just as long as it caught on.
Here is the promotional video Zhgun, made for Zoich's candidacy. It is certainly something:
Zhgun's drug nightmare of a frog took off as a symbol of opposition, an emblem of Russian corruption in the lead-up to the Sochi games. In 2010, Zoich was a star, especially among young, urban opposition activists who were in the midst of massive protests against the Putin-led government. The frog did, indeed, go viral.
In a blog post explaining Zoich's creation after the contest, Zhgun indicated that he intended to subvert the intentions of his employers: "to be able
to goof around to play a joke on official State’s business was really appealing to me (I wish they came with such requests on daily basis.)" But whatever his intentions, Zoich was actually a boon for the Russian officials he intended to prank: Zoich is a fake, sanctioned "opposition" candidate. Although you can debate about whether the frog exceeded the expectations of Russian officials — it is often tempting to overstate the Russian government's omniscience — Zoich had the end effect of drawing momentum away from the many authentically created opposition mascots. The joke, a bad one, was actually on the opposition.
Late last year, Outside Magazine dug into the mascot's origins for an excellent piece on Sochi's negative environmental impact and corruption, noting that at the height of his popularity, "it was hard to see Zoich as anything but a protest candidate." As far as anyone could tell, the imagination it took to create Zoich seemed completely out of line with the Russian bureaucracy running things. But the trickery behind his origins paralleled the fate of the opposition movement that embraced him. Outside explains:
When Putin successfully reclaimed the presidency in 2012, with 64 percent of the vote, election observers noted that, despite allegations of ballot “irregularities,” fraud wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the government controlled who got to run in the first place. The real opposition wasn’t even on the ballot.
Unlike the other protest mascot candidates (including a saw — a reference to a Russian idiom for financial government corruption — and a vodka bottle, which is pretty self-explanatory), the Russian Olympic Committee now owns the rights to Zoich, and even reportedly considered selling souvenirs of the frog. When it was revealed by the artist and Russian officials that the Olympic Committee was behind Zoich all along, many of those who latched on to him as a symbol of protest were heartbroken. Zoich was dead to them.
As for Russia's official Sochi mascot, that pretty much went as planned. A "cool" snowboarding leopard won the competition — the mascot, of course, favored by Vladimir Putin, who really loves leopards. The leopard's co-mascots are a bear (President Dmitry Medvedev's favorite), and a rabbit.