Photos Courtesy of NBC Sports Division and Official 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics
Stuffed animals and skating rinks have had a long and storied history. There are the Teddy Bear Tosses that happen at hockey games — where plush bears are thrown onto the rink when the home team scores its first goal. The bears are then gathered and donated to children’s charities and hospitals, and the altruistic attendees attempt to break world records with the number of critters they hurl to the ice. (The current world record was set on December 6, 2015, when the Calgary Hitmen hockey fans unleashed 28,815 stuffed toys in a single, triumphant toss.)
Figure skaters at every level of competition have plush pals thrown onto the ice in honor of their routines. Fans bring bouquets and bears to honor their favorite athletes, and every ice-skating hero and heroine usually embraces a big, cuddly stuffed animal when they await their scores.
But this year, at the 2018 Olympics, the plush pals have taken center court, or — more appropriately since its wintertime — center snowy stage. Rather than being presented with their medals at the podium, the trio of winning athletes is being given adorable, charismatic, absolutely cute-beyond-belief tigers. At first, it seemed a bit jarring. Where is the Gold? Where’s the Silver? Hey, isn’t there a Bronze?
But then, especially as arctophiles, we begin to see the unifying factor of the tigers. If, indeed, everyone is a winner by getting to the Olympics to represent their nation, then the tiger creations are letting the spirit of victory surround the athletes. They are unified with their little plush pals, and they are glowing with happiness for having scored in the top three. These athletes aren’t separated by the color medal hanging around their necks. No, they are joined together by their personal happiness, respect for their accomplishments, and the tiny tigers in their hands.
The 2018 Pyeongchang tiger mascot is named Soohorang, and his likeness is emblazoned across every imaginable collectible at the Olympic Village. Additionally, his effigy can be purchased online at Amazon, eBay, and other merchandising websites. Soohorang symbolizes the tiger, which is one of the core animals in Korean mythology. Its name is derived from “Sooho,” which means “protection” in Korean, and “Rang,” which translates as “tiger.” (The Korean word for tiger is ho-rang-i, so manufacturers have taken the middle syllable and added it to Sooho.)
The traits associated with Soohorang are admirable ones. The Pyeongchang Olympic Committee describes him as being “trustworthy, protective, and a guardian.” His mythic alter ego is meant to look over and protect the athletes and the fans, keeping them safe as the games go on in the shadow of North Korea and its less-than-amiable leader. The tiger is a shield against aggression, ill will, and evil spirits. Its role as a soldier against forces that seek to harm Koreans is found throughout the nation’s long, rich, ancient history. Silhouettes of tigers are found on monuments, talismans, and on the royal tombs of the Joseon Dynasty, which dates back to the 1400s. Many of the nation’s folkloric songs and fables feature the tiger as a noble and fierce warrior, fighting to save the country’s honor.
Additionally, the shape of the Korean peninsula is said to resemble that of a tiger, so the connection to this animal is ingrained in the country’s very shape. Sadly, actual white tigers are hard to find in Korea. So many of the living, breathing beasts were hunted over the centuries that they are extinct in that country. They were hunted for their bones, which were believed to contain medicinal properties and male-enhancement abilities. The shooting and killing of white tigers was finally given a moratorium, because the South Korean government eventually realized that they had been hunted into extinction on the Peninsula.
China has given Korea a pair of white tigers for breeding purposes in a controlled, scientifically monitored breeding ground. However, the notion of birthing a new generation of free-roaming, free-living wild animals is mainly a pipe dream. South Korea has become a densely populated, modern, urban-centric country. It would be foolhardy to imagine having a brand-new dynasty of white tigers left to prowl and populate among the always-expanding business districts and high-rise apartment houses.
That is probably one of the primary reasons why the white tiger has also been selected to stand in as a metaphor for South Korea and its current identity. With a booming economy and an unbridled appreciation for capitalism, South Korea has been described as a “monetary miracle.” It is often likened to a financial tiger. The Asia Society has written, “The tiger is seen as a nationalistic symbol of economic strength, representing the urban and aggressively successful modern South Korean economy.”
As a result, when the skaters, snowboarders, skiers, and sledders hoist their Soohorangs into the air, they are demonstrating their own personal achievements, and also elevating the evolution of South Korea as a contemporary force in Asia and around the world.
The tiger’s top hat is decorated with another nod to Korea’s history. The paper flowers that decorate its crown are called uhsahwa, and these paper petals were given to folks who sat down and passed the national exams, which were conducted until 1910. So, it’s quite moving that these super-fast, super-strong, super-airborne athletes who fly into the air, off slopes, somersaulting confidently on flexible pieces of plastic, are holding high plush tigers that are grounded in a country’s fabled history.
If the Soohorang tiger does its predicted job of keeping everyone safe and secure during the Olympics, it will be a true hero. Furthermore, if it can eradicate the threat of North Korea, which has saber-rattled at the DMZ for decades — getting more dangerous and hostile over the last 10 years — it will be a hero for the ages. The plush tiger is a way to celebrate unity among the top-three athletes at their events; their individual medals are handed out later in the evening at a pageant-filled ceremony. Soohorang has brought camaraderie and exuberance to its recipients. Expectations that it can heal a nation’s divided wounds are a bit naïve, a tad foolish, a little Pollyanna-ish.
But when the world is falling under the collective spell of a simple stuffed animal decked out in various wintry sports apparel, perhaps that is the time to dream the most impossible of dreams.
Read more about Olympics collectibles in Stephanie Finnegan’s Doll Chronicles blog
at our sister website for DOLLS magazine!