It's a symbol of revolution and freedom, of striving. And it's a hat. It's an icon seen over centuries, from the Notre Dame Cathedral to the Eiffel Tower. And yes, it's still a hat.
More specifically, it's a Phrygian cap, the red bonnet famously worn by Marianne, the artistic personification of the free French republic. The Paris 2024 Olympics and Paralympics unveiled the hat as their official mascots this week, showing off cartoonish images that are meeting with wide-ranging reactions.
"It's the French spirit that came to us, this French spirit that makes us a slightly out-of-the-ordinary nation," explained Paris 2024 Brand Director Julie Matikhine, in a video celebrating the mascots' unveiling.
As happens when a national spirit combines with the Olympic spirit, the mascots are also being packaged into nearly 10,000 types of products, from plush toys to hoodies, electronics and luggage.
These mascots are not like the others
The mascots are named the Phryges — Olympic Phryge and Paralympic Phryge. And before we get into the responses to them, we should note that the Paris 2024 mascots do something important, even revolutionary: Apart from the Paralympic Phryge having a racing blade where its counterpart has a leg, they are nearly identical.
That's a wide departure from previous Games, where the Olympic and Paralympic mascots have often had different colors and designs, or were represented by different species altogether. At Rio 2016, for instance, one mascot was a cat-like chimera, while the other was a very cute tree.
For Paris 2024, it's a way to emphasize that despite differing appearances and events, athletes in the Olympics and Paralympics are just that: athletes.
"They've been brought together and it's the same world, the same family," said Joachim Roncin, who led the mascot design effort.
Among the reactions: are these lady parts?
It's not uncommon for Olympic mascots to provoke head-scratching and bemusement. Some of the most successful examples have been safe crowd-pleasers — see Beijing's recent deployment of the panda, its hard-working ambassador.
But when the French conceptualize something, "safe" and "crowd-pleasing" often don't carry the same weight they might elsewhere.
As they sought to express the French spirit, Matikhine said, the Phrygian cap was the "best way that we found to illustrate this, the most distinctive way anyway."
Responses to the Paris 2024 video tweet revealing the Phryges ranged from "Olympic Crynge" to questions about whether the coq, the well-known French rooster, was for some reason unavailable.
Then there are the comparisons. One commenter said the red caps look like Smurf hats gone amok. And several others said the elongated triangular shape is like a cartoon of female body parts brought to life.
The Phryges have backstories
Simple though they might appear, these mascots are not under-conceptualized, although Paris organizers seem undecided about their gender, sometimes referring to them as "it" and other times as "she."
Describing the Olympic Phryge, Matikhine said:
"It's a fine tactician, it's a mascot who is extremely focused, who thinks everything through before it acts. It analyses the terrain, the situation. It never launches into anything without calculating the risks. It is also very French, with a great charm, and with a sensitivity that it tries in vain to hide."
Of the Paralympic Phryge, she said:
"In a way it's the twin of the Olympic Phryge. It is a real party animal, extremely extroverted, it is a people person, it brings the party and its charisma with it wherever it goes, rallying everyone around it, spontaneously and naturally."
Origin stories and appearances aside, organizers hope the mascots connect with fans and children and inspire the French public to embrace sports even more than they currently do. And, they add, the mascots' dolls and other items are already on sale, more than 600 days before the Paris Summer Games begin.