When Olympic medalists take the podium following their events at the 2022 Winter Games, they’re often presented with the same prize: an adorable little panda.
Its name is Bing Dwen Dwen.
The cute, rotund bear comes encased in a clear silicon shell and adorned with a gold wreath, the Greek and Roman symbol for victory. The athletes typically cradle Bing Dwen Dwen in their arms or hoist it into the air, while celebrating their accomplishments before medals are formally awarded in a separate ceremony.
But Bing Dwen Dwen is more than just a placeholder for the hardware. It is one of the breakout stars of this year’s Olympics, rapidly taking over Beijing since the Opening Ceremony.
There are images of Bing Dwen Dwen plastered throughout the city, inside the Olympics’ closed loop and out of it. Bing Dwen Dwen mingles with spectators in the crowds and poses for photographs with athletes, always sporting a smile and sometimes waving its paw.
“Oh my god, I love Bing Dwen Dwen,” said American snowboarder Tessa Maud. “I have a little Bing Dwen Dwen plushie, and I just love him. He’s so cute.”
“I love him,” added teammate Zoe Kalapos. “I bought like eight stuffed animals of him so far.”
When snowboarder Shaun White shared a video tour of his room, his decorations included a red sign featuring Bing Dwen Dwen taped on the center of his bed’s headboard.
“I am a huge fan,” White said. “I put that poster up.”
Securing Bing Dwen Dwen is no easy task for non-athletes, though.
Long lines have queued with customers waiting hours in hopes of getting the highly coveted panda. Plush toys, figurines, keychains, pins — anything and everything with its likeness — have flown off the shelves. Nearly all Chinese souvenir shops immediately sold out, even as some stores instituted a “one per customer” policy.
According to a Beijing news broadcast, approximately 300 people lined up outside the officially licensed Olympics merchandise store on the popular Wangfujing shopping street about three hours before it was scheduled to open last Sunday.
Reuters found one customer who waited behind 1,200 others on Monday only to learn the store was sold out. USA Today reported another customer in Nanjing, a province south of Beijing, waited 11 hours overnight in sub-zero temperatures.
In response to the intense demand, the Beijing Olympic organizing committee issued a request for increased production. They attributed the low supply partially to the fact that many Chinese factories had closed for a week because of the Lunar New Year on Feb. 2.
“We are paying close attention to this problem,” said Zhao Weidong, a spokesman of the Beijing Olympics organizing committee. “We’re now making efforts to coordinate the production and supply of Bing Dwen Dwen.”
Bing Dwen Dwen certainly outshines mascots of past Winter Games, most recently Pyeongchang’s Soohorang, a white tiger, in 2018 and Sochi’s Snowflake, a snowflake, in 2014.
The interest is so high that police have begun cracking down on the counterfeit and resale market of the stuffed animal.
Tang Yaozhi, who works in copyright administration of the publicity department of the Chinese Communist Party, said at a press briefing that authorities punished someone who produced and sold counterfeit versions of Bing Dwen Dwen, levying a one-year prison sentence and a 40,000 yuan ($6,290) fine.
Police also announced that three people were subject to “administrative penalties” for re-selling the stuffed animal at prices well above its 192 yuan ($30) retail value.
So, what makes the panda so popular?
Is it the full-body plastic shell made out of “ice”? The look, which resembles a spacesuit, is intended to help the panda skate, snowboard, and ski. Is it the warm and endearing facial expressions? The red heart on the palm of its left paw? The glassy eyes?
The craze took a slight hit when China Central Television, a state broadcaster, interviewed Bing Dwen Dwen last week on a livestream. The panda, much to viewers’ shock and dismay, had the voice of a middle-aged man. CCTV quickly removed the program from its website.
According to the International Olympic Committee, mascots for the Games are required to be gender-neutral. Chinese state media worked to restore Bing Dwen Dwen’s genderless identity, insisting that it cannot speak.
But even that slip-up hasn’t seemed to quell the surging demand.
A Chinese securities firm estimates 2.5 billion yuan, or $390 million, will be spent on licensed Olympics merchandise, which includes, of course, Bing Dwen Dwen.
And why not? As American snowboarder Maddie Mastro said: “He’s pretty dang cute.”