Sport

Take the Winter Games, please

Stephen Wilson

The cost of hosting the Olympics has left only Almaty, Beijing, Oslo and possibly Lviv for the 2022 Winter Games after other cities voted no.

Snow collects on the Olympic Rings in Sochi, Russia. (Getty)

The Olympics have weathered World Wars, boycotts and corruption scandals. These days, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a new crisis on its hands: finding cities willing to host the Games.

The troubled race for the 2022 Winter Olympics is a case in point. High costs and internal political opposition prevented several potential contenders from bidding. Two candidate cities withdrew and two others could still drop out.

The way things are going, the winner could be decided next year by default. Take the games, please.

“I have not seen anything like this before,” senior Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said. “This is urgent. We need to sit down and discuss what is going on. We are at a crossroads here.”

It’s a challenge the IOC and new president Thomas Bach need to resolve quickly to ensure the long-term viability of the world’s most prized sports event.

Changes to the bidding process and efforts to reduce the cost of the games are among the key issues the IOC is addressing as part of Bach’s Agenda 2020, his blueprint for the future of the Olympic movement that will be voted on in December.

Watching closely are countries and cities considering whether or not to bid for the even bigger and more expensive Summer Olympics of 2024.

Financial burden
The financial burden is worrying potential host cities. Specifically, the $51-billion price tag associated with February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Olympic officials say most of that huge sum was spent on long-term projects and that the operations costs of the Olympics were no higher than previous games.

No matter. Public perception is that the games cost too much.

Concerns over Rio de Janeiro’s delayed preparations for the 2016 Olympics have further dampened enthusiasm for hosting the games.

The Olympics continue to succeed as a spectacle, with huge audiences on television and online. But the field for 2022 has taken one hit after the other.

Munich and St Moritz-Davos withdrew planned bids when voters in Germany and Switzerland voted “no” in referendums. Stockholm, one of the five declared candidates, pulled out in December after the city government declined to offer financial backing. On Monday, the Polish city of Krakow dropped out after 70% of voters rejected the bid in a referendum.

That leaves four cities in contention for now: Almaty in Kazakhstan, Beijing in China, Lviv in Ukraine and Oslo in Norway.

The bid from Lviv has been on hold because of the turmoil in Ukraine.

One of three
It’s possible only three bids will still be in play when the IOC executive board meets in Lausanne, Switzerland, from July 7 to 9 to decide which cities go to the final stage. Rather than cut the field, the board will likely keep the remaining three. The full IOC will select the host city in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31 next year.

Most worrying for the IOC is the uncertain status of the Oslo bid. Polls show that 60% of Norwegians are opposed to hosting the Games. One of the two parties in the governing coalition came out against the bid earlier this month. The government won’t decide until autumn whether or not to provide the required financial guarantees.

“We have an image problem,” Heiberg said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “People in Norway say we love the games but we hate the IOC.”

Oslo, which hosted the 1952 Winter Olympics, would have been the natural favourite. Norway lives and breathes winter sports and its athletes have won the most medals at the Winter Games. The 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, are widely described as the best ever held.

“If there is a referendum today, the ‘no’ side will win by a large margin,” said Heiberg, who organised the Lillehammer Games. “But this could change. We have time.”

Most solid bids
Amid all the instability, Almaty and Beijing stand as the most solid bids.

Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Olympics, is bidding to become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games, with Alpine events in Zhangjiakou in China’s northwestern Hebei province, which borders Beijing province to the southeast. 

Almaty, the commercial capital of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, hosted the 2011 Asian Games and will host the Winter University Games in 2017. It looks to be the current favourite.

Has the situation reached the stage where the Olympics can only be held in non-democratic countries where money is no object? No public referendums are being held in Beijing or Almaty. Kazakhstan has been ruled by the same leader since 1989. Both countries have been criticised for their human rights records.

“I see a problem in Western Europe,” Heiberg said. “We have to accept the fact that we are not attractive to Western European countries. People think the Games have become gigantic, the investments are too heavy.”

Winter crisis
The current crisis centres primarily on the Winter Games, which also face concerns about if rising temperatures will prevent countries from holding the event in future decades. But the attention will soon shift to the race for a bigger prize: the 2024 Summer Games.

The US, which hasn’t hosted the Summer Games since Atlanta in 1996, is weighing another bid after failed campaigns by New York (2012) and Chicago (2016). The United States Olympic Committee is expected to decide whether or not to put a city forward by the end of the year. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Dallas and San Diego are still in the mix.

Paris, Rome and a city in Germany are potential contenders from Europe. 

Other possible bidders include Doha in Qatar, Istanbul in Turkey and a city in South Africa. – Sapa-AP

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