Not even an outbreak of the chicken pox at Shriners Hospital could keep the 2002 Paralympic Winter Games mascot from revealing himself, much to the delight of children who found him wrapped in yards of gauze.
Otto, a river otter, made his debut at the children's hospital Monday morningafter a dozen children went on a short scavenger hunt. They discovered the furry critter on a gurney looking like a mummy. The children, some of whom wore arm or leg casts or were in wheelchairs, made quick work of the bandages to uncover the energetic mascot.
The gray otter, decked out in a yellow hockey helmet, yellow goggles and Paralympic jersey, symbolizes vitality, agility and
nature's whimsical spirit. His name means eight in Italian, and these are the eighth Paralympic Winter Games. Otto is the only one of the Olympic or Paralympic mascots that is a live character like Bear of Utah Jazz fame.
"Mascots link the Games to children of all ages," said Mitt Romney, Salt Lake Organizing Committee president. "They can educate and excite at the same time."
Several children at the hospital recently came down with chicken pox, causing Romney some hesitation about walking into the building. He has never had the childhood disease.
"When I saw the sign at the door, I was a little nervous. But they said don't worry," Romney said.
The ill children were quarantined in a wing of the hospital far removed the mascot unveiling festivities.
Those who met Otto liked what they saw in the silly character who showered red-hatted Shriners and children with silly string. Both squealed with laughter. "He's funny," said Marcela Yutrovic-White, 13.
Otto will take center ice tonight at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Ice Sledge Hockey Championship at the E Center in West Valley City. The 7 p.m. ceremony will be followed by an opening round game between the United States and Sweden.
Admission for adults is $5. Children under 18 get in free. The sledge hockey tournament runs through Saturday evening.
The furry critter will be present at all Paralympic events. He also will visit Utah schools and take part in SLOC's youth programs.
"The otter is a great symbol for these games," said Park City resident Chris Waddell, a five-time Paralympic gold medalist. "Both otters and Paralympians are tenacious and strong. Paralympians have definitely been very tenacious to get where they are and to accomplish what they have."
The river otter is found locally along the banks of Utah's Colorado and Green rivers. Once indigenous to the area, otters were wiped out by pollution and overtrapping in the early 1900s. The river otter was reintroduced in 1990 and is now regularly spotted near Flaming Gorge in the eastern part of the state.
SLOC's image and publications team designed the furry costume. The International Paralympic Committee approved the mascot in April. Mascots from previous Paralympic Games include Lizzie the lizard (Sydney 2000); the Pararabbit (Nagano 1998) and Blaze the phoenix (Atlanta 1996).