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opinion

Leave it to the French to choose an Olympic mascot that gets people thinking.

In unveiling a Phrygian cap with eyes and legs as the mascot of the Paris 2024 summer games, the event’s organizers spurned the easy route of going with a cuddly mammal or video-game character that might look lovable but inspire little in the way of contemplation.

Instead, the body known as COJO Paris (short for Comité d’organization des Jeux Olympiques et Paralympiques de Paris 2024) this week unveiled les Phryges (pronounced fri-jee-uh), a pair of vermilion toques with appendages and sneakers, meant to personify the famous red bonnet associated with the 1789 French Revolution and freedom fighters of all sorts ever since.

“We chose an ideal rather than an animal,” COJO president Tony Estanguet said in presenting the Phryges, including one with a prosthetic leg for the Paralympics, the first such mascot with a visible disability. “We chose the Phrygian cap because it’s a very strong symbol for the French Republic. For French people, it’s a very well-known object that is a symbol of freedom.”

Not everyone immediately bought into that lofty concept. Social media lit up after Tuesday’s announcement with people comparing the Phryges to the giant inflatable clitoris that a French feminist organization had blown up on Paris’s Place Trocadero last year for International Women’s Day. Comedians and talk show hosts had a field day satirizing what they insisted was the sexually forward French choice of a little-understood female genital organ to represent the Paris games. A columnist for the left-leaning Libération deemed les Phryges a progressive change from the Eiffel Tower, the phallic symbol par excellence usually used to promote Paris.

Once everyone was finished having their fun, however, the verdict was largely positive. Writing in Le Figaro, essayist David Brunat called les Phryges “an audacious choice” given the Phrygian cap’s place in French revolutionary mythology and its roots in the pileus, or felt hats, worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. “The Paris games are thus showing their colours,” Mr. Brunat wrote. “Republican. Revolutionary. Patriotic … Marianne rather than Milo of Croton.”

Milo was the ancient Greek Olympic wrestler immortalized in paintings and sculptures as a symbol of athletic prowess and physical perfection. Marianne remains the French Republic’s most iconic symbol, famously depicted wearing a Phrygian cap in Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People and on French postage stamps ever since France’s liberation from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War.

There’s nothing whimsical about choosing a symbol with as much gravitas as the Phrygian cap as an Olympic mascot. “We are the people of the Enlightenment, our values have illuminated the world,” Julie Matikhine, brand director for Paris 2024, told Le Parisien newspaper.

Bing Dwen Dwen, the panda in a high-tech body suit that served as the mascot for this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics, was an undisputed hit with fans, with stuffed-toy versions fetching hefty premiums online after official Olympic merchandise shops sold out. But the Beijing mascot did not exactly provoke deep meditations on its meaning.

Indeed, the last thing China’s communist rulers wanted was for anyone to think about the underbelly of the Beijing games, which were the subject of a diplomatic boycott by several democratic countries, including Canada, over China’s human rights abuses. In this respect, Bing Dwen Dwen was an eminently political choice, presenting a kinder, gentler (and undeniably cuddlier) face to the world than those of President Xi Jinping and the Politburo.

Olympic mascots serve as powerful branding tools, perhaps the most powerful of them all. There have been some spectacular flops, harming the image of the games. The one-eyed cyclopses Wenlock and Mandeville (purportedly representative of molten steel droplets) chosen as the mascots of the 2012 London Olympics were almost universally panned and shunned. They seemed to evoke both the coal-fueled Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and our modern surveillance society, neither of which sparked warm or fuzzy feelings. More like anxiety.

Quatchi and Miga, the mascots of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, were major successes. Games organizers drew on Indigenous spirituality and urban legend to create mascots (one a sasquatch, the other part-killer whale, part-Kermode bear) evocative of British Columbia’s supernaturalness. And boy were they ever cuddly.

The Phryges may not rank as highly on the cuddliness index, though the Made-in-China stuffed versions that French sports retailer Decathlon will start selling in its stores around the world starting next year may surprise us. But in daring to associate the 2024 Olympics with an ideal as powerful as the struggle for freedom itself, the Phryges might be the best mascots ever.