The Summer Olympics are just around the corner, and excitement is building. The pageantry! The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat! The weird mascots! Wait, what?

We could talk all day about the 2012 London Games — the venues, competitions and athletes. But let’s take a moment to explore another side of the Olympics.

A good place to start is with the mascots of the 2012 Summer Games, Wenlock (Olympics) and Mandeville (Paralympics).

They’ve been teased mercilessly, with some critics describing the creatures as “two parts Teletubby, one part lava lamp.”

But they’re not alone. Remember Izzy the Whatizit mascot (what was it anyway?) for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta? Or Athena and Phevos, named after heroic Greek gods, but looking more like Beanie Babies with massive feet, for the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece?

The first official Olympic mascot was created for the 1972 Games in Munich, Germany. Waldi the dachshund actually looked like a dog — if a dog were blue, green, yellow and orange. It seems mascot designers have taken artistic license from the get-go.

But we digress. London has hosted the Games twice before, in 1908 and 1948. That first year, the Brits made quite an impact, with the Olympics lasting a record 187 days, from April to October. That year they also left their mark on the marathon, lengthening the official distance by just a few yards over 26 miles, so the royal family, whose viewing box was to be at the finish line, could have a better view.

The 1948 London event was the first Summer Olympics after a 12-year hiatus due to World War II. Post-war times were tough, with rationing still in effect, but British spirits were high and people were happy to see the return of the Games.

It will be interesting to see what the 2012 London Games’ legacy will be.

It’s all Greek to me

Speaking of legacy, it’s hard to beat that of Greece. That’s where it all began, in 776 B.C., with the first Game. There was just one event, a 192-meter foot race, and the winner was a young baker named Coroebus. No gold medal for this lad; his prize was a wreath of wild olive leaves. It should be noted that Coroebus’ wreath and a big smile were all he wore that day, for the ancient Greeks competed in the nude.

Well, ancient Greek men anyway. Married women were forbidden, on pain of death, to even watch the competition, and it wasn’t until 1900 that women were allowed to participate at all.

The ancient Olympics were held every four years for nearly 1,200 years, with more sports added over time. Then, in 393 A.D., a Christian emperor abolished the Games throughout the Roman Empire due to their pagan nature. It wasn’t until 1896 that a French aristocrat revived them, which is why they’re often called the modern Games today.

The French had a huge influence on the rejuvenated Games, spearheading a number of major traditions, including the Olympic flag with its iconic rings. The five rings symbolize the five “significant” continents, and are interconnected to show the friendships that result from these international competitions.

Things get a little odd again when we look at prizes for the top athletes. At the first modern Games, each first-place winner got a silver medal and an olive branch, while second place got a bronze medal. Sorry, third place — nothing for you. But at the Paris Olympics in 1900, winners received paintings because the French thought they were more valuable. It wasn’t until 1904 that gold, silver and bronze medals were meted out.

Now, we could end this with an inspiring quote by a super-famous Olympian, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s hear from the late U.S. diver Alice Landon, who was underwhelmed by the facilities at the Olympics of 1920 in Belgium: “The swimming and diving were held in part of the old moat. … It was the clammiest, darkest place, and the water was frigid.” Ewww.