Vancouver Olympic Logo: A Smiling Marker Of Death?

Stacks of rocks built by passersby near the Olympic Village in Vancouver. The piles are reminiscent of the inukshuk, a kind of stone cairn found in the Arctic that has been adopted as the official symbol of the 2010 Winter Olympics. (NPR)

Attentive fans of the Winter Olympics may have noticed that the official logo of the 2010 games is a pile of rocks. It's a stylized version of an inukshuk, the stone cairns built by the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic.

The logo is everywhere in Vancouver, paired with the Olympic rings, and it's inspiring imitators. On the rocky shore of False Creek, near the Olympic Village, dozens of impromptu inukshuks have cropped up, built by passersby. Tracy Niemeyer, of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, calls the urge to stack rocks "spiritual."

"It's almost a meditative practice to get them balanced — you can see some of the ones where you wonder how they got that to stand," she says.

Other tourists who stop to stack rocks offer their own theories about the meaning of inukshuks. One man says they're meant to help the spirits of the dead find their way to the afterlife.

But the man who may be the world's foremost expert on inukshuks is not amused.

"They're fake!" says Peter Irniq. A former commissioner of the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut, Irniq was born and raised in igloos, and has built many inukshuks over the years. More recently, he's built them for museums. Irniq says the meaning of the inukshuk is straightforward: It's a symbol of survival.

"[Inukshuks] have always been built in areas of good hunting for caribou, good hunting for seal and good fishing spots," he says. When he was younger and traveling in the Arctic, he says, the sight of an inukshuk was always reassuring, because it meant he was traveling in a place where others had found game.

Irniq is put off by the Olympic logo because of its human form. Its fat legs and outstretched arms make it look a little like a hockey goalie, and the head has a hint of a smile. Irniq says his people rarely stacked rocks to resemble humans.

"It's a symbol of the fact that someone may have, um, committed suicide or someone may have murdered somebody at that spot," he says.

If people are interested in looking at an example of an inukshuk that's not associated with death, he says, they should look at the flag of Nunavut, which features a more traditional inukshuk.

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The official logo of the Vancouver Olympics is a pile of rocks, a smiling pile of rocks. It's a stylized version of an inukshuk, a kind of cairn - a pile of stones - built by the Inuit people of Northern Canada. The symbol was meant as a tribute to Arctic culture. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, with these winter games, even rocks can become controversial.

MARTIN KASTE: There's a new unofficial demonstration sport in Vancouver this year.

(Soundbite of rocks)

KASTE: It's rock balancing. Precarious piles of stones have been popping up all over the shore near the Olympic Village. There are dozens of them, some as tall as four feet.

Unidentified Woman: We took a picture with them and then we decided to build one.

KASTE: These girls, up visiting from Seattle, are building theirs in the shape of the Space Needle. Canadian Tracy Neimeyer is taking her stack of rocks a little more seriously.

Ms. TRACY NEIMEYER: I think there's something spiritual about it.

KASTE: As a good Canadian, Neimeyer knows that these rock piles are actually an imitation of the official logo of the Vancouver Olympics, which in turn is an imitation of the inukshuks built by the Inuit people of the Arctic. But you don't have to be Inuit, she says, to feel the urge to stack rocks.

Ms. NEIMEYER: It's almost a meditative practice to get them balanced. Like, you can see some of the ones that you wonder how they stand. That's a meditative practice to get those things balanced like that.

Mr. PETER IRNIQ: They're fake inukshuk. They're fake.

KASTE: Peter Irniq knows his inukshuks. He's Inuit, born and raised in an igloo, and more recently he was a high-ranking official in the government of the Arctic territory of Nunavut. These days he builds authentic inukshuks for museums. He says the real meaning of the inukshuk is pretty straightforward. It's all about survival.

Mr. IRNIQ: These inukshuks, which is plural - three or more - are always built in areas of good hunting for caribou, good hunting for seals and for good fishing spots.

KASTE: Sometimes the inukshuk includes a little window to help point out the good hunting ground. But what inukshuks don't usually come with, Irniq says, is arms and legs and a head, like the Olympic logo.

Mr. IRNIQ: Traditionally that's called inuwuop(ph), which means imitation of a person. It's a symbol about the fact that someone may have committed suicide or someone had murdered somebody at that particular spot. So, Inuit don't build these very much at all.

KASTE: He says if people want to see an example of an inukshuk that's not associated with violent death, they might want to check out the flag of his home territory of Nunavut.

Meanwhile, Vancouver's forest of mock inukshuks keeps growing. And even though they're not exactly authentic, they do enjoy a certain level of cultural respect. Again, Tracy Neimeyer.

Ms. NEIMEYER: I've never actually had the nerve to do it, but I've seen people take them apart to see if they were glued or not. Like, I wouldn't do that to somebody else's balancing rock, right?

KASTE: And in this, Neimeyer has something in common with her Arctic countryman.

Mr. IRNIQ: My mother used to tell me when I was a little boy not to knock down inukshuit. If you do, you may shorten your life. So, be careful.

KASTE: It's good advice in any culture. When in doubt, leave that pile of rocks alone.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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