What is it? An oral history of Izzy, the mascot marketing snafu of Olympic proportions

Ten companies proposed a mascot. One was chosen. The winner would live in Olympic infamy.
1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

It would be hard to overstate how shocking it was when Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta? Over Toronto? Athens? Melbourne? The news, which came on a Tuesday in September 1990, sent the city into a frenzy of celebration. But for Billy Payne, who’d run the three-year campaign that led to the announcement, it was just the beginning. Now came the hard part: Finding corporate sponsors, building an 85,000-seat stadium, delegating the thousand and one tasks to ready the city for the world stage. Far down on his list? Designing a mascot in time for the closing ceremonies of the Barcelona Games in 1992, when the Olympic torch would be passed to Atlanta. Payne quickly appointed a “mascot committee,” which created design guidelines and canvassed for submissions. Ten companies proposed a mascot. One was chosen. The winner would live in Olympic infamy.

Bob Cohn, cofounder of public relations agency Cohn & Wolfe, member of Payne’s mascot committee: In Barcelona in 1992, they had a fantastic mascot—Cobi, who was typical of Spanish art and filled with creativity. Mascots were warm and fuzzy symbols: Look at Waldi, the Dachshund, in 1972; Misha, a Russian bear with a big smile, in 1980; Sam the Eagle, a fun-looking tribute to America, in 1984.

Harry Shuman, then director of public information for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, or ACOG: We contacted a number of design companies and asked them to give us a submission. But we were not going to pay them. Some of them wrote us back letters [that essentially said] “The nerve!” or “We’re not doing anything for nothing.”

Ginger Watkins, then ACOG chief of staff who led the mascot committee: Part of the restriction was that it would have to be copyrighted. So it couldn’t be characters that existed in Georgia lore. They had to create a brand-new character.

Shuman: We gave them somewhat specific directions. It had to be just one character. It needed to be unisex. It needed to be noncontroversial. It couldn’t relate to the Civil War or slavery—we weren’t going to have Rhett Butler. So among the submissions was a fox, a gorilla for Willie B. [the famous gorilla at Zoo Atlanta], a peanut called “Peter Peach Nut,” a raccoon, a couple of flames. Somebody sent a tiger. Somebody sent us a deer. The last one to come in was [John Ryan’s] character.

John Ryan, then senior director at DESIGNefx, the animation division of Crawford Communications: The basic job was to design something that would appeal to children and broadly on a world stage. There was a mention of trying to acknowledge regional flair. For me that meant they were going to get designs that were pecans and peanuts and pooches. So I fell back to classic design technique, seeing things from the perspective of an alien who had just landed here. I was a transplant to Atlanta. Reducing the mascot to a possum or pecan or peach representing Atlanta seemed a little silly to me.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
John Ryan, pictured in 1992 with his original rendering

Photograph by Rich Mahan/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Working from his home office, Ryan settled on a character that was neither human nor animal. It resembled a blue tear, with hands sprouting three fingers and a thumb, lightning eyebrows, and a big, sheepish grin. It wore five Olympic rings—two on its eyes and three on its tail—and oversized sneakers nearly half the size of its body. Ryan named it Hi-Rez.

Bob Brennan, then ACOG spokesperson: Billy Payne wanted to do something modern, reflective of the technological world we lived in.

Billy Payne, then ACOG’s president and CEO: Computer-generated visual effects were virtually taking over the entire entertainment industry. You had movies like Jurassic Park, Total Recall.

Shuman: I received Hi-Rez right at the deadline, a Friday. I had a doctor’s appointment on Monday. While I was out of the office, Billy went through them.

Watkins: The material was laid out, not in a prioritized order; you could see them all on a big conference room table. When Billy looked at that [proposal], he said, “Gee whiz, wow. That’s the way we ought to go. Let’s go with that one.” It was a gut decision.

Payne: As CEO of the Olympic Games, I felt it was both our responsibility and within my authority to make whatever decisions needed to be made. I don’t know how people have characterized how democratic the process was, but when we got to the point of making a decision, everybody knew I was probably going to make the decision.

Shuman: By the time I got back on Monday afternoon, Ginger told me Billy had made his decision. It was Hi-Rez. I did my Macaulay Culkin face [from Home Alone, as if to say], “Oh no, you’ve got to be kidding me!”

Payne: We had so many things to do. Were we raising enough money? Were the stadiums going to be built in time? How are we going to train 50,000 volunteers? All of those had enormously higher importance than the mascot.

Shuman: You didn’t question Billy. He had already done the unthinkable: He had brought the Games to Atlanta when nobody thought there was a chance. Who am I to question his choice?

Payne: The logical question that you would ask on seeing it is “What is it?” I guess we just said, “Well, we should just put it into one word.”

Shuman: The name, Whatizit, was almost worse than the character itself.

Watkins: The name had too many letters. Does it have a space in it? Does it have a question mark at the end of it? Does it all run together? Is it with a z? All of that became a complication.

Ryan: We had to have [final] designs submitted by March [1992], knowing it’d be debuted in August at the Barcelona Games. I had an immediate task of going through all the sports to create poses from javelin to wrestling. There was a period of all-nighters.

Shuman: We were under a really, really tight timetable. It looked more like a worm to me when it was done. Except it was a bit longer and thinner. It really looked funky.

Watkins: Some things that are creatively the right thing to do are not always mechanically easy to do. This was, first and foremost, very difficult to translate into a costume. It had to be nonthreatening; it had to be inviting to kids. In a huge stadium it can’t be little. It had to be wearable by an adult, and it couldn’t just plod along.

Shuman: To generate interest about the mascot, we did these billboards all over town saying, “Whatizit?” We built up this huge anticipation.

Ryan: It was made very clear that if secrecy was violated, Crawford could lose future contracts. It was a scary time. My son saw me work on original designs before the secrecy order was lifted. The billboards had a drape over them, but you see the top of the eyeball and lightning bolt eyebrows. My son was 10, and he said, “Dad, is there something I should know?”

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
Billy Payne fends off Izzy

Photograph courtesy of Harry Shurman

The closing night of the XXV Olympic Games in Barcelona came on August 9, 1992. After Mayor Maynard Jackson accepted the Olympic flag, a troupe of tap dancers took the stage. Meanwhile an amorphous animated character filled the stadium’s video monitors. “If you’re wondering what it is,” said Bob Costas on the telecast, “its name is . . . Whatizit?” Inside the 22-pound costume was Norcross resident Mark Evans, a former University of North Carolina cheerleader, who had to show off Whatizit’s dance moves.

Evans: I took the field with Gregg Burge, the famous New York [tap] dancer. He and another dancer helped guide me to the field. “Watch out for this cable . . .” I couldn’t hear anything but the roar of the crowd. You can’t see your feet, so you go on muscle memory.

Joel Babbit, CEO of the Narrative Content Group, veteran ad exec who worked with Payne to promote the Olympic bid, and City Hall’s first-ever chief marketing and communications officer under Jackson: If Maynard had an opinion, he kept it to himself.

Brennan: My mental image was of some Chinese broadcaster seeing this thing for the first time. “How do you say ‘Whatizit’ in Mandarin?”

Ed Hula, editor and founder of Olympic publication Around the Rings, who was in Barcelona: I just felt at a loss to exactly what we’re seeing. Like, this is it? This?

Julia Emmons, who oversaw the marathon competition at the Olympic Games in Atlanta and was in Barcelona: We were horrified. Completely and totally horrified.

Shuman: Then we come back to Atlanta, and the letters started coming in. I got the letters. They’re complaining: This is terrible.

Hula: I really wasn’t anticipating or expecting the reaction that it got hours, days, weeks, and months afterward. It’s just entertainment. But [ACOG] had a lot riding on the mascot financially from license sales.

Robert Hollander, then ACOG’s vice president of licensing: My heart dropped into my stomach.

Hula: It’s something that’s supposed to evoke an image of Atlanta, the host city, and it really didn’t do that at all.

Payne: What the mascot represents is a drop in the bucket compared to what you want an Olympic Games to say about your community. We didn’t even think we were compelled to do something that would make somebody in Australia say, “That mascot must be from Atlanta, Georgia.” It never crossed our minds.

Michelle Hiskey, an AJC reporter who covered the Olympics: When you think about Atlanta now, you think about winning teams like the Braves in 1995, you think about Outkast, you think about films made here. You didn’t have that yet. Atlanta had been searching for an identity. It was sort of like a bigger Charlotte.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
R. Land’s Izzy-inspired artwork

Photograph courtesy of R. Land

Ronnie Land, an Atlanta-based artist, better known as R. Land, who has made Izzy-inspired art: This was our “Hey, world, we’re Atlanta” moment. It’s almost like parody of every other mascot that came before it—a generic mascot that’s not anything but everything at the same time.

LaTara Smith (née Bullock), ACOG’s “project coordinator for Izzy appearances” during the Olympics: I’ve heard everything from toothpaste to blue blob. It was something that could not be described in the way of a dog, or a cat, or an eagle like past Olympic mascots. He was just a blue being.

Hiskey: People were going to focus on the crazy blue thing because there wasn’t a lot of other cool stuff here. So it wasn’t helpful to have Izzy.

Bob Hope, president of Atlanta-based public relations firm Hope-Beckham Inc.: I thought [Billy] briefly lost his mind.

Kevin Sack, a New York Times reporter based in Atlanta, wrote in a 1996 story that “[i]t is precisely Izzy’s nothingness that has unwittingly made him an apt symbol for this Olympic city. When officials with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games playfully named the creation Whatizit, it seemingly did not occur to them that the sociologists and scribes of the world would soon be asking the same question about Atlanta.”

Ryan: It was for kids. So it was funny to me that it took that path toward the mean-spirited side. A few folks in the local media immediately latched onto it. Whatizit’s costume made Mike Luckovich’s punchline. I got a good laugh at that. Colin Campbell became obsessed with it.

Colin Campbell, then an AJC columnist: The city, like the Olympics itself, had great resources: good restaurants, the symphony, the Braves. There’s more substance in the town’s history and the civil rights movement—[those are] things of real importance. And it had a lot of other stuff you try to edit out. People were embarrassed [by Whatizit].

Watkins: You did everything you could mentally not to be distracted. But it did, of course, have an effect when you picked up the paper and read an article. You wish people would look at the good stuff instead of focusing on the minutiae and losing the big picture.

Campbell: I suspect I hurt some people’s feelings. But crap is crap.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
A four-foot Izzy doll from the Atlanta History Center

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Each passing day made the pixel more of a punch line—“blue doofus,” “road kill,” “a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong.” Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, slammed it as a “bad marriage of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin.” By spring 1993, less than a year after the mascot’s Barcelona debut, ACOG’s top brass went back to the drawing board for both the name and design. Payne’s staff enlisted an army of marketers, set up nationwide focus groups that included more than 150 children, and landed on a list of five new names. Soon after, 32 Atlanta-area children were chosen for the Kids Advisory Council to pick the name out of 3,300 submissions. ACOG officially retired Whatizit in October 1993.

Watkins: We went to Parade magazine. They ran a whole program on children renaming it. The most submitted name was Kirby. I had no idea why. But Kirby was already trademarked. The second most popular was Izzy. It was Whatizit but shorter. It was easy. No questions of spelling. It worked.

Babbit: I liked the name Izzy. You always think of Izzy as a friendly person who’s always smiling, being affable, a little bit of a personality.

Jacqueline Blum, senior vice president of Film Roman, the animation studio behind The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Garfield and Friends, which produced an Izzy cartoon for TV: Izzy was a character created by committee. So many people had input on what this character should be. There were too many cooks in the kitchen.

Ryan: You got into a scenario where you have multiple art directors and bosses. It was hampered by politics. If the clients think they know your business better than you do, it’s not a good start.

Hope: [Izzy was] like New Coke. You can research something all you want. It can tell you all the things you’d probably like to hear. But it still backfired.

Smith: Izzy developed a nose. Izzy got a little shorter and a little happier—I like to say happier rather than wider—he used to be tall and slim with no nose. But then he developed into a lot more of a character.

Shuman: We had these stars coming out of his tail at one point. It looked like he was farting or something, which is kind of weird.

Ryan: Mention was made that kids are wearing their hats backward, so maybe Izzy should have its shoes on backward. I raised my hand and said, “Maybe not?” They left the shoes the way they are. But I was removed from the process when I tried being the voice of reason.

Watkins: We learned over time how to make the costume better. The costume had to get fuzzier. The costume had to get softer. It couldn’t be tight.

Evans: Children loved the mascot. It got children aware of the Olympic experience and involved with athletics. We did programs where we went to children’s hospitals and special needs events. It was enriching.

Hollander: ACOG’s licensing program [generated] somewhere close to $100 million in royalty revenue from the sale of all Olympic merchandise. I can’t tell you exactly [how much was from Izzy merchandise]. I’d guess probably close to 15 percent. We sold a lot of plush.

Watkins: I’m guessing [the bestselling item] would be the doll that was 12 inches that could be carried under a kid’s arm. They were fuzzy. It could be talked to.

Don Rooney, the Atlanta History Center’s director of exhibitions: Refrigerator magnets. Key rings. Neckties. Tennis rackets. Lounge chair pillows.

Shuman: Billy wanted to market the shoes. Izzy had huge feet. Billy was always looking at a money-making angle, and I thought, “Who’s going to wear shoes that look like that?” That was one of his ideas we never got off the ground.

Blum: It’s not a particularly easy character to animate. We produced a pretty significant animation at our expense—hundreds of thousands of dollars—for a half-hour special.

Hollander: Our broadcast partner, NBC, had gotten out of the children’s program business. They didn’t want anything to do with it. I went to Turner in Atlanta and said, “We’ll just give you this program if you will air it for us.” It aired two times, possibly three, [on TNT] before the Games. Basically they just did us a favor.

Watkins: They created an Izzy balloon that flew in New York City in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy merchandise
Just few of the Izzy items hidden away at the Atlanta History Center. Check out this article for more unusual merch.

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Closer to the Olympics, ACOG decided it needed more Izzy mascots. Evans helped create a mascot program that recruited volunteers through auditions.

Smith: By the time the Olympics came around, we had upwards of 20 Izzys that could be in different places at one time.

Kira Wilsterman, a Decatur teacher who became an Izzy volunteer: Izzy came to our school to get the kids pumped up. I asked [Izzy], “How does one become the mascot?” They were having tryouts the next weekend. There were hundreds of us.

Evans: We worked with performers to [standardize] the mannerisms. We wanted to make sure all performers presented the same character. Don’t exclude children. Let children approach you versus approaching them. Don’t want to scare children.

Adam Jay, then a high school student who volunteered to be Izzy: We were given a sheet about who Izzy was. There were things Izzy could do and couldn’t do. For example, Izzy loved everyone, so whether it was a critic or a fan, you didn’t show any negative emotion. You had to know the sponsors: He could hang out with Coca-Cola products but not hang out with Pepsi products.

Wilsterman: We had to put on the gloves and the feet. Izzy had a size 22 sneaker, so you had to fit your shoe inside Izzy’s shoe, inside another little pocket, and be able to walk around in his big feet. After that they had us put on the costume for the full-fledged audition. It was big and heavy and very hot.

Jay: You entered through the top of his mouth. You needed two people to take off the costume because his eyes snap to his body.

Smith: A lot of children thought it would be fun to swing on the tail. When that happened, the costume sat on your shoulders, and you could throw your back out.

Evans: The lighting bolt eyebrows and rings on the tail were prime targets for being pulled, punched, or ripped off for a souvenir.

Smith: Handlers began watching the perimeter. Izzy could only see a certain distance.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
“Animating” Izzy in 1992

Photograph courtesy of Harry Shuman

On the night of July 19, 1996, 83,000 people headed to Summerhill for the opening ceremony at what would eventually become Turner Field. Gladys Knight sang “Georgia on My Mind,” Chevrolet pickup trucks circled the cheerleaders in the showcase, and Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch. Izzy was out of sight. When a reporter asked about the mascot’s whereabouts, Smith replied: “We were told that Izzy didn’t have a role in the opening ceremony. We’re all sorry about that because we knew so many kids who wanted to see him.” Two days later the Associated Press wrote: “Was he run over by one of the pickups and left for roadkill outside the stadium? Is he still waiting for a shuttle bus? Was he held hostage by Gumby?” Soon enough, though, Izzy was back on the streets.

Smith: We took over one of the Olympic headquarters offices. We had calendars on the wall that showed where each Izzy would be every day. You would check in, get your costume, and go out.

Wilsterman: Sometimes it was on the field or in the venue. Other times it would be outside as a crowd-pleaser.

Jay: We were instructed to wear the Izzy costume 30 minutes on, 30 minutes off, because you would sweat.

Wilsterman: There were two fans at the top of Izzy’s head [inside the costume]. We were lucky if one even worked.

Jay: I remember having a headset so if I needed to get out of the costume. I was able to whisper into a little microphone that went into the escort’s ear.

Smith: Izzy didn’t talk. There was always a person there [helping] Izzy if he had to sit down or got dizzy or overheated.

Jay: We did have to scale back appearances dramatically once the bomb happened. You wouldn’t go to Centennial Park and see Izzy. It was a safety issue. There were rumors, threats; you didn’t know what was true. Izzy didn’t do public appearances—only [ones for] ticketed sponsors.

Brennan: I don’t think Izzy showed up at the closing ceremony.

Jay: When the flame went out, so did Izzy. He was extinguished with the flame.

Rooney: We did an exhibition on the first anniversary of the Games. The question came up: Can someone dress up in the Izzy costume to greet visitors in the Atlanta History Center? We were told Olympic mascots do not live on after their time. They don’t come to life again.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
LaTara Smith with Izzy

Photograph courtesy of LaTara Smith

Smith: I still have one of the Izzy costumes. The rest of the costumes went into a black hole somewhere. No one is supposed to have one—except for me.

Payne: People didn’t like it. But we sold a lot of merchandise, held a privately funded Games; we actually made money, which we gave back to the community. So I guess it did okay.

Watkins: It was not a mistake. Did we create issues for ourselves by not getting the first costume right? Yes. We got it right later on. Billy’s vision of what it could be was definitely not a mistake. I never lost my enthusiasm for Izzy. If you questioned it, all you had to do was look at Izzy next to a child. They loved it. You felt it.

Smith: We were able to be goodwill ambassadors for the Olympics. Was it the greatest experience of my life? I would say it was the most unique experience of my life.

Evans: I do appreciate the originality and willingness to do something different. I do think it was a missed opportunity to do something more representative of Atlanta.

Land: Atlanta tries so hard to be what we think the world wants to view us as. Izzy was so squeaky clean and so safe for a soulful and funky metropolis in the down and dirty South.

Shuman: Izzy was kind of like Colony Square—a little bit before his time. On the other hand, he’s also like Jimmy Carter. He’s much more beloved now, in his retirement, than he was during his tenure.

Smith: It would’ve been easier to have a phoenix.

Campbell: It boggled the mind. It was silly. It was pointless. It was tacky. It was kitsch. It didn’t say anything. It was cutesy. It was unrelated to the city.

Babbit: It doesn’t matter what it was. Whatever the mascot, there would’ve been a huge number of people making fun of it.

Hope: Billy did a lot of things great. The logo for the Olympics was spectacular. Two things weren’t: the Olympic cauldron, which looked like a McDonald’s french fry holder, and Izzy. It was bizarre. It was a Smurf.

Cohn: It doesn’t take away from the magnificence of Atlanta. There were things that really did matter. That picture of the coach holding Kerri Strug in his arms, if you saw that image today, it would mean something. An image of Izzy? I don’t think it would register.

Shuman: Usually everything Billy touched turned to gold. This might have been his one mistake.

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.