The headlines in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s was of economic malaise, Three Mile Island, the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the presidential campaign pitting incumbent Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan.
It was the Cold War, and the temperature was below zero. And yet, then president of stuff toy manufacturer and importer, Dakin & Co., Harold A. Nizamian, thought the planned mascot for the 1980 Moscow Olympics was charming. So he bought the license to create a stuffed bear and began producing and selling “Misha the Bear“.
Dakin began producing 240,000 Misha the Bear toys a month in early 1979, and the bear was selling. According to this Inc. article, Nizamian implies that he had global licensing rights as he claims the “the Russians were delighted and tried to buy it from us”.
But when the United States government announced that America would boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and forbade American companies to do business in relation to the Olympics, orders were cancelled, and Misha was suddenly a victim of a bear market.
What’s fascinating about Misha the Bear is that ironically, this lasting symbol of the Soviet Union is one of the best known of all Olympic mascots in the world, its image gracing t-shirts, coffee mugs, pins, posters, and toys. In other words, the Soviet Union created the first commercially viable and globally popular Olympic mascot.
According to the Huffington Post, “no other mascot has done more for its country than Misha from Moscow. As the smiling tiny bear touted as Russia’s cuddly ambassador to the world, Misha served as a warm child-friendly sight as the peak of the Cold War. His image, starkly different from the traditionally gruff bear common in Russian lore, propelling Olympic merchandise sales forward while 55 nations boycotted the games.“
It is said that Misha the Bear’s farewell during the Closing Ceremonies was one of the most memorable moments of the 1980 Moscow Games.
As for Dakin, Nizamian had $1 million dollar’s worth of Misha the Bear sitting in his warehouse. So what did he do?
Nizamian decided to give the bear a new nationality and a new lease on life. He removed the belt and reintroduced Misha in an assortment of T-shirts. “I Am Just A Bear,” one read; another proclaimed “U.S.A. Olympic Hockey Bear,” trading on the stunning victory by the United States at the winter Olympics. “It moved fairly well,” he explains. “We were able to dispose of about half of our stock by using that vehicle.” Dakin donated another 100,000 bears to the Special Olympics, a competition for handicapped children, and sold the final 100,000 to liquidators.