Visual Storytelling at the 2022 Winter Olympics

Visual storytelling at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing has had quite a job in front of it. The last few years have been taxing at best and crushing at worst, and political divides have added more difficulty to the Beijing Olympics.  So how have promoters deployed visual storytelling to elevate the games above the biological and political fray?

Mascot Mania

To start, they’ve created Bing Dwen Dwen, the games’ panda mascot.  “The stuffed animal version has become so sought after that people are camping overnight to buy it,” Emily Feng writes for NPR, chronicling the mascot’s popularity and almost overnight scarcity.

What does Bing Dwen Dwen’s design tell us about the panda bear character, and his place in China’s visual story of the 2022 games?  First, we have his name—Bing means ‘ice’ and symbolizes purity and strength, while Dwen Dwen references children; the Olympics’ official page on the mascot says that it “embodies the strength and willpower of the athletes and will help to promote the Olympic spirit.”

Visually, Bing Dwen Dwen is a roly-poly looking panda in a “full-body ‘shell’ made out of ice, which resembles an astronaut suit – a tribute to embracing new technologies for a future with infinite possibilities.” 

Around the faceplate of Bing Dwen Dwen’s shell is a multicolored “halo” which also represents “the latest advanced technologies of the ice and snow sport tracks at the Games,” and red hearts on the palms of its hands indicates China’s hospitality.

I think the halo/shell discussion is the most interesting part of the visual storytelling at work with Bing Dwen Dwen.  On a black-and-white animal, these colors stand out quite a bit—similar to the principled use of a single Accent Color that TruScribe relies on to promote engagement in our frames, Bing Dwen Dwen’s accented halo draws the eye quickly.

Combined with a dual focus on technology, Bing Dwen Dwen’s designer (and the judges who chose the panda from “over 5,800 submissions from China and 35 countries around the world”) was clearly interested in directing our attention towards uncontroversial, agreeable achievements.  Bing Dwen Dwen is an interesting visual artifact as it is equal parts soft and relatable, and rigid and electronic.

Bing Dwen Dwen’s Paralympic counterpart, Shuey Rhon Rhon, is a red, white, and gold lantern child, evocative of Chinese paper cutting and Ruyi ornaments. Shuey Rhon Rhon’s heart glows visibly to celebrate Para athletes. Like Bing Dwen Dwen, Shuey Rhon Rhon is flying off the shelves: buyers can only purchase “one Bing Dwen Dwen or Shuey Rhon Rhon plush toy per day, and only 1,000 were available on Thursday… [and] sold out Thursday morning.”

They’re great character to send the story Beijing hopes to transmit, focusing visiting countries on points of national and civic pride—technology, facilities, willpower, strength—and ignoring any controversial elements.  So how do the images from the games themselves continue this visual story?

Competitive Content

For one, there’s the visual story told around Bing Dwen Dwen, which takes the form of numerous images of visitors to the games posing with the mascot or mascot memorabilia.  Some of these pictures seem to have the straightforward message of “Visitors to the Beijing games are happy,” while some have a more nuanced message. 

This image, of a masked woman taking a picture of a little Bing Dwen Dwen toy, is a powerful encapsulation of 2022, the Olympics, and the Beijing games in particular.  Her mask is an unmistakable reminder of the ongoing pandemic; the camera, our refusal to let life pass us by without making memories; and Bing Dwen Dwen, a toy that evokes our refusal to let conditions undo our ability to enjoy whimsy.

The Omaha World-Herald’s photojournalism also trumpets the ‘human spirit overcoming the situation’ tone of much of the Beijing Olympics’ coverage.  The image of Petra Vlhova celebrating her gold medal win on February 9, and the truly arresting close-up portrait of Franz-Josef Rehrl getting ready for a ski jump, speak loudly to that same effect: our Olympians do not shy away from any challenge, including the everyday ones that make even getting to the event difficult.

Finally, these stories help to build a grander visual narrative about humanity as a whole, as opposed to humanity divided via nationality.  Perhaps the most notable of these stories is Eileen Gu’s, an 18-year-old skier born in San Francisco who competed this year for the Chinese team. 

Unified Through Sport

In her speech, Eileen emphasized the unifying possibilities of the Olympics over the divisive ones:

“I feel like sport is really a way that we can unite people… it’s something that doesn’t have to be related to nationality.  It’s not something that can be used to divide people.  We’re all out here together pushing the human limit.”  Paired with the joyous visual of Eileen biting her gold medal, it’s an effective story of a young person’s immense success and impressively humanitarian perspective.

International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons echoed this call to togetherness, saying at the opening of the Paralympic Games that “Here in Beijing, Paralympic athletes from 46 different nations will compete with each other, not against each other. Through sport, they will showcase the best of humanity and highlight the values that should underpin a peaceful and inclusive world.”

From an outsider perspective (being specifically an outsider to the planet, or at least to the last 2+ years of human experience), the Beijing Winter Olympics should be truly fraught with difficulties.  The pandemic alone should be enough to problematize the proceedings, as well as political and social realities that pit China against various Western powers and have resulted in varying degrees of boycott.

In spite of these major challenges, however, the Olympics have gone on—and they look, for the most part, just as upbeat and positive as we’re used to seeing them look.  The visual storytelling had to do some heavy lifting to elevate our collective spirits towards the competition and above the often discouraging ground-floor realities of 2022, but the success of Bing Dwen Dwen and proliferation of classically Olympic images shows that Beijing’s content creators were up to the task.