Whither the Winter Games? A study in arrogance

The Winter Olympics aren’t that expensive. Not if you already have most of the infrastructure in place — a sliding track, ski jumps, a solid Alpine skiing area, and maybe four or five arenas ranging from 3,000 (curling) to 15,000 (figure skating).

Russia spent $51 billion, allegedly, to stage the 2014 Games. That’s Russia. That’s the hubris of building things from scratch and the corruption to get it done in haphazard fashion. Sochi will host some other stuff, from the (men’s soccer) World Cup to Formula 1 to the Magnus Carlsen-Vishy Anand World Chess Championship rematch, but we’ll have to see if anyone actually goes there on a regular basis in the future. In any case, they didn’t spend $51 billion on the Olympics. They spent that money to grease a few palms and build the world’s biggest Potemkin village. (Even the originally Potemkin villages may have been overblown.)

Oslo could host the Games with relative ease. Some venues — the sliding track, the Kvitfjell and Hafjell resorts for Alpine skiing — have been in steady use since Lillehammer 1994. The Holmenkollen area, practically the birthplace of modern ski jumping, hosted the 2011 World Nordic Championships. They’re already hosting the 2016 Youth Olympic Games.

So we’re talking about a much, much smaller price tag. And as Alan Abrahamson points out, the IOC was going to chip in a hefty $880 million for expenses.

Add in the fact that Norway is generally considered a pleasant place to visit, without the recent history of undermining neighboring governments, and Oslo looks like a much better bet that Sochi when it comes to hosting the Games. Surely it would have defeated 2022 bid opponents Almaty and Beijing with ease.

Until Norway decided to withdraw the bid.

What happened?

Sochi certainly poisoned the well. You can tell people the Games didn’t cost and won’t cost $51 billion, but it sticks in the head. I guarantee you someone will respond to this post — here, on Twitter, or on Facebook — using the $51 billion figure as if it’s true.

But there’s more to it, and it’s all about the IOC.

Rewinding a bit: I actually met the last IOC president, Jacques Rogge. He stopped by to visit USA TODAY not long after his election. I held open a door for him, and he insisted on stopping to thank me and shake my hand. The impression he left: Compared to his predecessor, he was down to earth and humble. He backed up that impression by staying in the Olympic Village alongside the athletes.

Those gestures, though, were never going to change the culture of the IOC. The Olympic movement is still in the hands of people who want to be treated as kings and kingmakers.

Separating the stereotype from reality is difficult, so not all of the complaints about the IOC hold water. Business Insider extracted a few IOC demands that aren’t particularly demanding:

– Hot breakfast buffet at IOC hotel. (That seems reasonable.)

– Consistent signage in sans-serif font. (If you’ve ever been to the Olympics, you know how helpful that is. Or is the objection that the IOC should use serifs?)

– IOC members and guests “segregated from press and broadcast” personnel. (THANK you! The last thing we need in the press area is a bunch of IOC bigwigs wandering around.)

– IOC hotel’s fitness areas, pool and sauna must be available at no extra cost. (Can I make this demand the next time I’m covering something in Vegas?)

– Volunteer drivers must speak fluent English or French. (Well, yeah.)

– No street vendors. (Call that a reaction to Atlanta.)

– Airports must have “smiling, positive and welcoming staff” to greet IOC members. (OK, that’s creepy.)

– IOC meeting rooms must be air-conditioned to 68 degrees. (For Summer Olympics, that seems a little extreme. But at least we’re talking about winter here.)

The IOC has shot back that all of this is less than ironclad. And indeed, the Technical Manual says: “The content found within the Manuals represents the IOC and its partners‟ best understanding of the specific theme at a given moment in time, and must always be put in context for each Games edition. Even a requirement with a distinct objective may vary from Games to Games, and therefore a spirit of partnership should be shared with the Games organisers to allow for the evolution of the requirements. This is especially true as the Manuals are updated following the evaluation phase of each Games.”

But a bit of bureaucratic sheen can’t hide the fact that Norway simply found the IOC just a bit overbearing.

“Norway is a rich country, but we don’t want to spend money on wrong things, like satisfying the crazy demands from IOC apparatchiks,” said Frithjof Jacobsen, VG’s chief political commentator. “These insane demands that they should be treated like the king of Saudi Arabia just won’t fly with the Norwegian public.”

“The IOC’s arrogance was an argument held high by a lot of people in our party,” said Ole Berget, a deputy minister in the Finance Ministry. “Norwegian culture is really down to earth. When you get these IOC demands that are quite snobby, Norwegian people cannot be satisfied.”

So even if non-authoritarian countries are willing to pay the financial price, will they pay the price of hosting a bunch of people they really don’t like?

Abrahamson has suggested that the IOC should put off the 2022 bidding until the IOC releases a new highfalutin’ vision. Perhaps that vision should include a nice dose of reality. Or at some point in our lifetime, World Championships will become more important than the Olympics.

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