Olympic Mascot Sam the Eagle

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When is a Disney character not a Disney character?

Is the Orange Bird an official Disney character even though he was designed specifically for the Florida Citrus Commission to be "the friendly face of Florida sunshine and fresh squeezed Florida orange juice"?

Or what about Fresh-Up Freddie who was designed by the Disney Company as the mascot for the 7-Up soft drink and looked like a mixture of Disney's Aracun Bird and Jose Carioca?

Or Scoopy Bee for the Sacramento Bee newspaper? They all look like familiar Disney characters. They all have merchandise like Disney characters.

And what about Sam the Eagle, the Disney-designed mascot for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles?

While the Olympic Games have been a centuries-old tradition (with the modern version of the Olympics beginning in 1896), the use of mascots only officially began with the 1972 Munich Olympic Games in Germany.

The first unofficial Olympic mascot was named "Schuss" and was born at the Grenoble Olympic Winter Games in 1968. Schuss was a little man on skis and his appearance sparked the creation of an official set of rules about the selection and use of a mascot at the games (people nicknamed the character "The Skiing Sperm" because of his abstract design, which probably also encouraged the IOC to become involved in the creation of designs for future mascots).

The International Olympic Committee meets throughout the years preceding the Olympics to discuss all sorts of issues pertaining to the games, including what the mascot will be.

Today, the IOC often contracts with a media company to come up with the perfect mascot showcasing the culture or history of the host city. The mascot is decided on early so that it can either be presented at the closing ceremonies of the current games or the very next day. Sometimes the committee will involve local citizens in choosing an appropriate mascot or naming it.

Waldi, a colorful dachshund sporting pastel shades of blue, purple, yellow, green, and orange to capture the festive atmosphere of the games, was the first official mascot ever used at the Olympics in 1972.

The dachshund was chosen as the mascot character because it is a dog of German origin, and one that was very popular in Bavaria at the time. In addition, the dachshund possesses qualities that are indispensable to an athlete: resistance, tenacity, and agility.

It became immediately apparent that Waldi captured the attention and affection of a wide public audience—especially children, who treasured and loved stuffed dolls of colorful Waldi. Not only did he promote the specific Munich Olympic Games, but he also served as a representative of the history and culture of the host city—and so a tradition was born.

Over the years, there have been a number of different mascots for both the Winter and Summer Olympics.

Misha the adorable bear cub developed by the renowned illustrator of children's books Victor Chizikov for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow became an instant international success.

Misha was chosen with the help of a public opinion poll conducted jointly by the editorial boards of the TV program V mire zhivotnykh (Animal World) and the newspaper Sovetski Sport (Soviet Sport). The majority of the tens of thousands of letters received suggested a bear.

More importantly, Misha became a merchandising phenomenon. While all Olympic mascots (even the most outrageously designed ones like Izzy from the 1996 Atlanta games) had some forms of merchandise—from belt buckles to posters—Misha was the first with a plethora of different items, from plush dolls, ceramic figures, tote bags, baby bibs, salt shakers, cigarette lighters, calendars, stickers, pins, mugs, radios, hats, pajamas, footstools, underwear, ice buckets, Frisbees, an animated short film, and even an animated television series.

Even though 65 nations led by the United States boycotted 1980 Summer Olympics, there was a ton of Misha-related merchandise sold, and the character is still popular today.

In 1988, as part of the Mickey Mouse's 60th anniversary celebration, a special magazine was produced in which Mickey Mouse and Misha met, and costumed versions of the characters met in person in Moscow as well.

For the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, it was the star-spangled red-white-and-blue Sam the Eagle who had to match or exceed Misha's popularity—and here's the story of how the Walt Disney Company tried to capture lightning in a bottle again.

Major Southern California animation and film studios were contacted by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizating Committee regarding the design of the mascot. As a prominent local businessman and deeply involved in Southern California activities, Card Walker—who was then Disney's Chairman of the Board—was asked to serve on the LAOOC executive committee.

So, it was no surprise that the Disney Company was selected from among three finalists to do the mascot design. The Disney Company had already had some Olympic experience.

In 1959, Walt Disney was asked to be the Chairman of the Pageantry Committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. His showmanship was so spectacular that it set precedents for future Olympic Games.

In fact, the Disney Company drew up preliminary plans for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 games.

As part of its agreement as host of the Games, the LAOOC submitted an "official report" to the members of the IOC at its regularly scheduled sessions. These reports provided the IOC with updates on the status of the Organizing Committee's efforts, and here is an excerpt from Volume 1, page 246 that was submitted July 16, 1980 about the selection and design of Sam the Eagle:

"Emphasis first focused on developing something emblematic of the Southern California area, including such possibilities as the sun, palm trees and seals.

"Considerations were expanded to include the state of California, whose symbol is a bear, but that idea was soon discarded since the Moscow Games had used a bear mascot.

"Finally, design development focused on symbols representative of the entire United States and the logical choice was the eagle. Generally considered a rather stern and aloof bird, a warmer, more friendly eagle had to be created.

"A short, stubby, cuddly little eagle evolved. He had a large head, bulbous middle section and a protruding derriere accented by an array of tail feathers. Besides serving as the national bird of the host country, the eagle was also universally recognized as an incarnation of the ideals cited in the Olympic motto:

'Citius, Altius, Fortius' (swifter, higher, stronger)."

By the way, the Bald Eagle is both the national bird and the national nnimal of the United States, and appears on the official seal. The term "bald" eagle actually comes from an older meaning of the word, which meant "white-headed."

Some 30 Disney artists labored over three months before they settled on the final design of an eagle.

"We even thought of oranges and palm trees," stated Disney art director C. Robert Moore, who came up with the final design. "We tried animated cactuses, snakes and turtles, but they were all symbolic of being slow, something the Olympics wanted to avoid. We considered a buffalo but decided on the eagle."

Moore stated at the time that an American bison looked too top-heavy when it was anthropomorphized to stand on two legs, and would be awkward to draw participating in athletic events as required.

Disney did design a buffalo mascot, "Bison tennial Ben," who combined the features of a buffalo and founding father Ben Franklin for the 1987 bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution by the California Bicentennial Association that lasted four years. He is little-remembered today.

From the official report:

"Since the eagle would have to be shown as a competitor in the various athletic events, the wings were drawn to function as 'arms' and the feathers as 'fingers.' The eagle was designed to work as a costumed character as well as a two-dimensional graphic symbol.

"The full-sized costume was successfully used for LAOOC promotional and youth activities. Moreover, Sam the Olympic Eagle proved commercially successful, as a doll and on mugs, pins, T-shirts, and many other products."

Just like Misha, Sam was licensed to a number of products including Frisbees, pins, playing cards, dolls, spoons, mugs, hats, keychains, watches, picture frames, plates, T-shirts, and seat cushions, among just a few of the items.

For this Olympics, there were 43 companies licensed to sell official Olympic products, including McDonald's that featured Sam on some of its merchandise. Allowing corporate sponsors helped the games to become the first Olympic Games to turn a profit ($225 million) since 1932. Primarily using existing facilities for events, rather than building new ones, also helped toward making that profit as well.

Some Disney fans mistakenly confuse Sam the Eagle with a similar character designed by Disney Legend Marc Davis for the now-extinct "America Sings" attraction at Disneyland that originally opened in 1974 and was still in operation during the 1984 Olympics.

A taller, thinner, more adult, audio-animatronics eagle named Sam is the host with his pal, an owl, to a tribute to the American Songbook and its connection with the growth of the United States.

Since purchasing the Muppets franchise, Disney also has another Sam the Eagle who is the all-American watchdog of the moral fiber of the rowdy Muppet characters.

Of course, it is fairly obvious that a bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, might be named "Sam" to reference another American iconic symbol, Uncle Sam.

The Olympics mascot Sam the Eagle was designed by C. Robert ("Bob") Moore, who used to identify himself as "Bob Moore, M.D." (Mouse Drawer).

Moore started at Disney as an assistant animator in 1940 after two years working for Walter Lantz. He first assignment was on Fantasia and also worked on Bambi, The Reluctant Dragon, Fantasia, and Dumbo, among other credits.

At the beginning of World War II, he animated training films for U.S. Navy pilots. After a stint in the military from 1942 to 1946, he rejoined Disney as a storyman. After the war, he worked on Make Mine Music and Melody Time, among other films.

He was the primary artist for the Publicity Art Department from 1948 to 1983. He was director of that department (previously handled by the legendary Hank Porter) from 1950 to 1983.

It was a "temporary" job that lasted 30 years. "That means they gave me all the things they didn't know what to do with," laughed Moore.

He created promotional concepts for Disney films and theme parks, and also designed many Disney movie posters, letterheads, logos, and Christmas cards.

He also created the murals at three Walt Disney Elementary Schools (including the one in Walt's hometown of Marceline, Missouri) and created the design for the 1968 U.S. postage stamp honoring Walt.

In addition, in 1971, he created the design of another Disney bird character for the Florida Citrus Growers, the Orange Bird.

After designing Sam the Eagle and seeing him launched, Moore officially retired from the Disney Company in 1983.

Moore told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1984 that he saw the character as "a mascot for children" so he made him smaller and eliminated sharp edges, like rounding off the beak, "to make him cuddlier."

Sam the Olympic Eagle was unveiled to the public on August 4, 1980, one day after the close of the Moscow Olympics.

Maybe it is just the nature of a bird character, but Sam never achieved the affection generated by Misha, who had the advantage of being basically a cuddly teddy bear.

Some have argued that Sam, with his head of white feathers, just seemed like an adult despite Moore's attempts to make him look smaller and cuter. Also, because of his design, Sam just didn't seem adept or quite athletic in all the sports poses required of him.

Sam was withdrawn according to IOC rules within a year after the 1984 Summer games were over, and was soon forgotten.

He made way for Hodori, a tiger cub, for the next Summer Olympics in Korea. Hidy and Howdy, twin polar bears, were the mascot for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

According to official rules, an Olympic mascot's appearance must terminate no later than the calendar year during which the games are being held. All costumes, production material, unsold merchandise, and more has to be destroyed and not sold.

One of the many rules regarding Olympic mascots is Rule 50 that states:

"The OCOG shall ensure the protection of the property of the emblem and the mascot of the Olympic Games for the benefit of the IOC, both nationally and internationally. However, the OCOG alone and, after the OCOG has been wound up, the NOC of the host country, may exploit such emblem and mascot, as well as other marks, designs, badges, posters, objects and documents connected with the Olympic Games during their preparation, during their holding and during a period terminating not later than the end of the calendar year during which such Olympic Games are held.

"Upon the expiry of this period, all rights in or relating to such emblem, mascot and other marks, designs, badges, posters, objects and documents shall thereafter belong entirely to the IOC. The OCOG and/or the NOC, as the case may be and to the extent necessary, shall act as trustees (in a fiduciary capacity) for the sole benefit of the IOC in this respect."

Little known is the fact that award-winning animator, director and historian Michael Sporn was contacted by two executives from Warner Brothers to develop a low-budget animated feature to star Sam. Sporn came up with a delightful script that was a parody of Alfred Hitchcock's film North by Northwest, where Sam is involved in a cross-country race (so all of the United States could be showcased) to the Olympics in California. Enemy agents (perhaps a reference to the Soviets who were boycotting the event) were out to stop the eagle.

The climax would have taken place in Disneyland, and Sporn was assured by the executives that it would be no problem to animate that location. At the last minute, the executives pulled out, fearing there was not enough time to do the film. Sporn went on to win an Oscar nomination for his short animated film "Doctor DeSoto" (1984).

However, Sam the Eagle did get his own animated weekly half-hour television series from April 7, 1983 to March 29, 1984. However, it only ran in Japan on Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS), on Thursday nights at 7:00 in the evening.

There were 51 episodes of Eagle Sam meant for children. Each half-hour episode had two self-contained stories.

My old friend and absolute expert on Japanese anime, Fred Patten, recently wrote about the series in his excellent series of columns.

Fred, the author of many books and countless articles, even occasionally wanders into Disney territory and has expertise in science fiction and furry fandom among other areas.

Here is an excerpt of Fred's description of the basic premise of the series:

"Eagle Sam was a gun-waving private investigator (everyone knows that all Americans are gun-happy). He had a human secretary, Canary Karina.

"Sam and Canary were always accompanied on their cases by Gosling, her slingshot-wielding kid brother. Sam was portrayed as the only one in Olympic City (a thinly disguised stereotype of Hollywood) who could solve any crimes or catch any criminals, because the police were too busy eating doughnuts, playing golf, or beating up innocent people.

"The police uniform's badge was a Star of David. Naturally, Chief Albatross and Officer Bogie (or Bogey) don't like to be shown up, so they—with Albatross's daughter Chichi—were always trying to sabotage Sam. Usually Albatross thought up the schemes and assigned Bogie to carry them out, but Bogie seldom got farther than being distracted by Canary's cleavage.

"When Sam got into a tight spot, he would toss his Olympic Hat with the five glowing rings into the air, reach into it, and pull out whatever he needed. The one who gave Sam the most trouble was the disrespectful jive-talkin', skateboarding, shades-wearing cockroach, Gokuro, who drove him crazy with his sassy but legal mockery (cockroach in Japanese is gokiburi). Other characters were Mr. Pelican the hippie, and Thunderbird the weight-lifter."

Don't believe such a thing could possibly be real? Here is a typical half hour episode.

Yes, for a children's show, the character of Canary with her high heels, extremely short mini-skirt with a slit on the side, and busting out cleavage must have encouraged a few fathers or older brothers to sit down and watch the show as well. Something odd and so far unexplainable is in the closing credits, where Sam leaps at Canary and tears off her small skirt, briefly revealing her white panties.

Sam's house has a huge red, white, and blue top hat on the roof just like the one he wears. While his age is indeterminate, he is given a young-sounding voice.

This Japanese series is considering a "lost" treasure since many knowledgeable Japanese animation fans for years have insisted it never existed, since no copies of the series were known to exist and hadn't been seen since its original broadcast. Fortunately, an American fan was able to track down one episode and some animation cels.

I thought it would be fun for this July 4th week to spotlight an obscure red-white-and-blue hero from the Disney Company but as much as I have been able to uncover, there is much more to this story.



  1. By MickeyBlue

    Great article, by the way. I remember the first time Sam made his public appearance. It was on the steps of City Hall. I wasn't there, but I heard that the character tripped on the steps. At that time it was a Disney employee.

    I did help out with Sam, so I am familiar with the costume, and it was modeled after the Winnie the Pooh with the honeypot on his head. The hat for the costume was hollow, so everytime someone came up to Sam and slapped the hat, it echoed loudly inside. We knew Disney made he costume, it was labeled with Disney productions on the different pieces. They even sent around a brochure of do's and don'ts in costume that was modeled after the one that Disney gave its cast members.

    And he was used more than for one year after the Olympics. I did several events with him.

    If there is more that you would like to know, Please comment here, or send me a PM, and I'll be happy to tell you what I can.

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