By ROB GLOSTER -- Associated Press
KATOOMBA, Australia -- The Olympics are opening Down Under. So the mascots must be a hoppy kangaroo and a cuddly koala, right? Wrong.
The trio of mascots for the Sydney Games are not exactly the animals the world would have expected at an Australian Olympics. In fact, there's not a marsupial among them.
Instead, visitors to Sydney are being welcomed by Syd the platypus, Millie the echidna -- or spiny anteater -- and Olly the kookaburra.
When graphic designer Matthew Hatton got the commission for the mascots in 1996, Olympic officials made one thing clear.
"They said specifically they didn't want to do a kangaroo and a koala, and that was great because neither did I. Everybody in the world knows them already," he said, sitting in a home studio filled with comic books and toys.
Hatton considered many indigenous Australian animals before settling on three that are familiar to most local school children but hardly known outside the continent.
"I never considered an emu for a second. Not only are they nasty things, but graphically they have long necks. You can't stick them on a T-shirt or a business card. I needed compact animals," he said.
"We Australians all know these animals, but the rest of the world doesn't know them. This was their chance to get known."
The platypus is a mammal with the beak of a duck, the body of an otter and the tail of a beaver. It lives in tunnels or burrows along riverbanks, and eat frogs, worms and insect larvae.
The platypus and the echidna are monotremes, the only egg-laying mammals known to man. The echidna is highly intelligent and uses a tongue up to seven inches long to catch ants and termites.
The kookaburra, a bird whose call resembles a human laugh, is the largest of all kingfishers. It dines on small mammals, snakes and large insects.
Syd was named for Sydney, Millie for the millennium and Olly for the Olympics.
As of mid-August, more than 600,000 plush toys of Syd, Millie and Olly had been sold. Most of the sales have been in Australia, but the mascots also have been popular in Asian nations -- where customers are buying the toys for $17.65 each on a Web site, www.olympics.com.
Madelaine Cohen, marketing manager for consumer products for the Sydney Games, said as many as a million of the plush toys may be sold by the end of the Olympics.
Cohen said the mascots, which will adorn T-shirts, bed linen, coffee mugs, pens, backpacks and a range of other Olympic souvenirs, are part of a merchandising program that already has taken in more than $200 million.
Merchandise sales are expected to bring royalties of nearly $41 million to Sydney Olympic organizers by the end of the games, Cohen said.
According to Hatton, who was paid $14,500 to design Syd, Millie and Olly, each of the mascots has a unique character.
Syd the platypus is "shy but strong," Hatton said. "He is a little self-conscious. But he has strength and is sure of himself."
Millie the echidna "is methodical but smart" and Olly the kookaburra "is ostentatious" and the showboat of the trio.
The Sydney mascots are downright mainstream when compared to their controversial predecessors, a cockeyed Cubist dog in Barcelona and a fuzzy blue blob in Atlanta.
The first official Olympic mascot was Waldi, a dachshund, who represented the 1972 Munich Games. Throughout the years, most mascots have been smiling, cuddly animals.
Javier Mariscal broke that tradition with Cobi, the canine mascot in Barcelona whom Mariscal said he created while on drugs. Cobi, who had expressions ranging from misery to exultation, was unpopular at first but became a big hit.
Izzy, the Atlanta mascot, was a bust. Originally named "Whatizit," the computer-generated character was able to morph into soccer balls and tennis rackets. Izzy was mercilessly mocked by fans and reporters.
Hatton said he learned from Izzy that mascots had to have character.
"Izzy was predicated on the idea of nothing," he said. "It made me realize they had to have absolute personalities. A mascot based on computer animation doesn't work."
Hatton, whose first submission for the mascot competition was "a boy and a girl platypus," made many artistic revisions after being picked from among hundreds of applicants as the official designer. The shape of Millie's quills led to heated debate with Olympic organizers.
When those Olympic officials first visited Hatton's modest home in this leafy town in the Blue Mountains about 90 minutes west of Sydney, they asked to see his studio. He led them to a room little bigger than a closet, with hundreds of Star Wars toys on the shelves and a book of Leonardo da Vinci's sketches on the floor.
Hatton sketches his designs in pencil, then moves to the computer to give them color and animation. He often works to the calls of a kookaburra that visits his back yard.
He can't go far without bumping into his creations. They're on billboards and planes, and pop up on TV all the time. Yet Hatton said he has not been offered any Olympic tickets, and he had to purchase the stuffed versions of Syd, Millie and Olly for his 8-month-old son, Patrick.
But he feels pride in having created mascots that will help form the image of the Sydney Olympics for many spectators and TV viewers.
"The athletes themselves are the literal face of the games," Hatton said. "The mascots are the spirit of the games. They are the personality of the games."