Friday, May 07, 1999

The story behind the name

Once upon a time, there were four winged swine who became a city's symbol, then a marathon's

The Cincinnati Enquirer

flying pig
Special section

        In Cincinnati this weekend, you can outfit yourself in a flying pig T-shirt and flying pig ball cap. You can admire hand-painted flying pig ceramic ornaments, drink out of a flying pig coffee mug or drop coins in a piggy bank — one with wings, of course.

        After that, you might join more than 6,000 runners from eight countries and 45 states in running Sunday's inaugural Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon.

        Somewhere along the route you'll want to take your mind off the fact that your body is about to disintegrate, which might be a good time to ponder this:

        Why are flying pigs a symbol of Cincinnati?

        If you were here in 1988, you may remember at least part of the story. Or maybe you're like marathon founder Bob Coughlin, president of Paycor Inc. He was here in '88, but being a carefree guy in his 20s back then, he didn't pay much attention to the furor over flying pigs.

        Reason enough to retell this pig tale.

        To celebrate the city's 200th birthday that year, plans were made to build a riverfront park — Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point — that would include an entrance sculpture. From more than 50 proposals, a team of renowned artists and architects selected a sculpture design by Andrew Leicester, an internationally known artist based in Minneapolis.

        Mr. Leicester incorporated various aspects of Cincinnati history into his design. Pigs, he knew, played a significant role in the city's industrial development.

        Indeed, Donna M. DeBlasio, senior historian for Cincinnati Museum Center, notes that by 1835 Cincinnati was the nation's leading pork-packing center. And by the 1840s, it was the world leader, with a quarter of a million hogs a year being slaughtered and processed here.

        To pay homage to Cincinnati's reign as Porkopolis, Mr. Leicester included in his sculpture four 3-foot-high bronze pigs, with wings. They appeared to be blasting out of 30-foot-tall riverboat smokestacks.

Why winged pigs?
        Mr. Leicester, speaking by phone from Weymouth, England, where he is visiting family, says winged animals have a tradition in sculpture. That answer, he acknowledges, is rather boring.

        A more poetic explanation, he says, is that the swine represent “the angelic spirits of all the pigs that were slaughtered and were building blocks of Cincinnati's prosperity. So they're up there paying one last tribute — singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” — to all their (dead) brethren who flowed into the river.”

        The pigs were a small part of the overall sculpture, but critics pounced. The swine were insulting, they said, and would make the city a laughingstock. Angry letters poured into local newspapers.

        Then-mayor Charlie Luken told the Enquirer that the city “risks a lot of embarrassment from people who come here from outside the area and see this as a symbol of the city.”

        Pig proponents, meanwhile, argued the oinkers were a whimsical representation of the city's past.

        Looking back, Mr. Leicester says he was surprised by the “the sheer magnitude, and the sustained magnitude” of the controversy. “What was rather interesting in terms of the subject was that it wasn't about gun control, race, religion or morality. It was about this kind of undefinable thing — people's notion of what represents them.”

        As the debate swirled, the news media — including the national press — ate it up. Reporters wrote about the squealing in Cincinnati City Hall and pigs hogging the bicentennial limelight.

        At a city council meeting in January 1988, the public was invited to have its say. Three pro-pig councilmen wore snouts. Citizens brought signs that said “Let the Pigs Fly.”

        And the pigs did prevail. The sculpture was built. The riverfront park was dedicated in June 1988. The flying pigs are there now, for your viewing pleasure.

Why won't they fly away?
        That might have been the end of it. Except that the flying pigs have refused to fade away.

        At Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati a few years ago, caterer Mick Noll fried squiggly pieces of dough and tossed it in sugar and cinnamon. He called the concoction Flying Pig Tails.

        BarrelHouse Brewing Co. in Over-the-Rhine did its thing by offering a Flying Pig Pilsner beer.

        A photo of the pigs appeared on the cover of a 1995 book, Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities (Smithsonian Institution Press; $45). Author Erika Doss praised the sculpture as “an amusing, interactive, and historically informed” model of contemporary art.

        When WCPO-TV (Channel 9) premiered its local trivia show called Know It Alls in 1997, ceramic flying pigs sat on bookshelves behind host Michael Flannery's desk.

        Just last year, the Junior League of Cincinnati published a cookbook, I'll Cook When Pigs Fly, (Junior League of Cincinnati; $19.95) that includes the flying pigs story.

        And now there is a marathon that inexorably links the city with winged swine.

        Mr. Coughlin says he and a few marketing types got together a couple of years ago to brainstorm names for the race.

        “Somebody threw out — and I don't know who to credit, so I'll take the credit — the Flying Pig Marathon. And everybody laughed,” he says.

        At first, the suggestion wasn't even included on the list of potential names. “Too stupid,” Mr. Coughlin says.

        But then he asked that the group fly with the pigs.

        Organizers eventually saw it as a name that would not only promote a fun event, but also tie in nicely with Cincinnati's history. And it had good marketing potential. They imagined someone saying, “Run a marathon? Yeah, right. When pigs fly.”

        “We thought, pigs are in, they're friendly, they're lighthearted,” Mr. Coughlin says. “We didn't think too hard about it. It came out of trying not to be too serious.”

        In October 1997, organizers officially announced the Flying Pig Marathon. The next day, a woman called Mr. Coughlin “berating me for being so stupid, and how (the name) belittled Cincinnati.

        “When I hung up the phone, I thought, "Now I know I want to use this name.' ”

        Runner's World magazine has called it “the most creative marathon name we've encountered.”

        “The name alone doubled the size of this marathon,” Mr. Coughlin says. Reaction, he notes, has been overwhelmingly positive.

Have we lightened up?
        There may still be anti-pig people out there, but former mayor Mr. Luken, now news anchor for WLWT-TV (Channel 5), is not one of them.

        “I was on the road to the White House until I hit the great flying pig controversy of 1988,” he jokes. (In fact, he was elected to Congress after the pig flap.)

        “I'm a convert, though. A full-fledged convert.” He says he began to change his mind after seeing an editorial cartoon by the Enquirer's Jim Borgman, “which basically said, "Lighten up.' ”

        As for Mr. Leicester, he's glad his pigs are again in the limelight. “I hope somebody is going to be gracious enough to invite me there, to at least let me fire the starting pistol. I'd wear my flying pig suit.”

        He donned the outfit — stuffed pink wings, pink plaid jacket, pink polyester pants — for the 1988 park dedication.

        Alas, told that the marathon is Sunday, Mr. Leicester noted he would still be in England. “They should have me next year,” he says.

        His flying pigs will be here, of course. One a recent sunny day at Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point, Rick Wilkins directed his 4-year-old son Benjamin to look skyward.

        “See the pigs?” Mr. Wilkins said. “Pigs with wings.”

        Benjamin glanced up, but seemed none too impressed.

        Mr. Wilkins, visiting from College Station, Texas, listened as someone explained how the pigs once were embroiled in controversy, then said, “I think some people take life too seriously. I think flying pigs are great.”


Flying Pig Marathon Guide
When pigs fly: Quirky name puts new race on the map
Competitors flying in from all over
Top wheelchair racers will be here
Race takes runners on tour of Porkopolis
Schedule and important info
- The story behind the name
Eash step helps other courageous fighters
Heart transplant, cancer - next, a marathon
Hitting the wall
Tips for the 48 hours before the race
Movies to pump you up
Rest easy: You'll rise and shine to the occasion
Water to wire, army of 3,000 make the race go
A first-rate marathon did not come easily
By the numbers
GOP chief running race of his own
Enter our 'Pigture Perfect' Contest
Five races every runner should experience
The best of the local races