Bidders for 2022 Winter Games are melting away

Christopher Clarey

As if the Winter Olympics did not have enough existential problems with concern about rising temperatures and melting glaciers, it now seems that nobody is much interested in staging them even while the planet still has snow.

What once looked like a robust race to host the 2022 Winter Games has turned into a scramble for the escape hatch.

Munich and a Swiss project from Davos and St. Moritz bid adieu to their efforts after public referendums. Stockholm, which was one of the six cities that made a formal application to the International Olympic Committee, withdrew in December largely because of cost concerns. This week, officials in Krakow, Poland, announced that the city would withdraw from the race after nearly 70 percent of voters rejected the plan.

Of the remaining four bids, Oslo is also surprisingly on shaky ground because of faltering political support, and Lviv, Ukraine, is widely considered certain to fall away because of the crisis in the country.

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The I.O.C. will announce the final list in July, but it could well have only two options when it votes for the 2022 site next year: Beijing, which hosted the Summer Games in 2008, and Almaty, Kazakhstan, a city of 1.4 million in a nation with an autocratic government and a dubious human rights record that has hosted an Asian Winter Games but never an event of Olympic magnitude.

"I think this is going to be really tough," said Terrence Burns, a longtime Olympic bid consultant who recently worked for Lviv. "This is a tough cycle for the I.O.C., but I think an honest dialogue about how we got here and why and what we are going to do in the future to make sure we are not in this position again would be a welcomed discussion."

The knee-jerk reaction is to proclaim that this is all fallout from the Sochi Olympics with its scary $51 billion price tag, shaky environmental record and high potential for future white elephant sightings.

Sochi has certainly played a role even if that cost figure continues to be misleading, incorporating huge infrastructural investments not directly related to the staging of the Games.

Shani Davis of the United States, wearing an Under Armour uniform, competes during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Getty Images

"People think it's too expensive to host a Winter Olympics now and that it may be too big," said Gerhard Heiberg, the Norwegian International Olympic Committee member who was the head of the Lillehammer Organizing Committee for the widely acclaimed 1994 Winter Games and is a driving force behind Oslo's faltering bid.

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"Some people feel that that kind of money should be spent for hospitals, roads and so on and so forth," Heiberg added. "There is a reaction to what people felt was too gigantic in Russia about the Games, and that we need to go back to the roots, if I can use that word, which should mean that Norway should absolutely be in the race. But some people say no, that it's too late, and we should pull out like other Western European countries have done."

It seems essential that Western Europe, the cradle of the Winter Olympics, remain in the rotation. "If Oslo should pull out, I feel this is not good for the I.O.C.," Heiberg said. "We need a Western European country in the race."

But Sochi also can and should be dismissed as an outlier, as President Vladimir V. Putin's pet project and a full-blown high-wire experiment that the Olympic committee should be smart enough to avoid retrying anytime soon, even if it did produce some terrific sport in striking venues and no major security incidents.

In truth, this crisis in Winter Olympic bidding also has its roots in mission creep, the lower profile and reach of the Winter Games compared with the Summer Games and the economic slowdown in Europe. But it also stems from the I.O.C.'s less-than-glowing image in Western nations.

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Burns, a 56-year-old American who has lived in Germany and Russia, has worked on numerous winning Olympic bids, including Beijing; Sochi; and Pyeongchang, South Korea, which will host the 2018 Winter Games. This week, in what reads like a Jerry Maguire-style mission statement, he published a series of reform proposals, some of which make a great deal of sense.

He believes the I.O.C. needs to develop a crack permanent team that would work from Day 1 with winning bidders and would be far more engaged than the coordinating commissions that currently provide I.O.C. oversight. The committee has now sent emergency reinforcements to Rio de Janeiro to help shore up the city's faltering attempt to stage the 2016 Summer Olympics, but Burns thinks the I.O.C. should have been there from 2009.

"You're dealing with amateurs every two years," he said of local organizers. "You are dealing with well-intentioned, greathearted, smart, good people, but they are short-timers."

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He also thinks the I.O.C. should identify cities and regions that would be the best long-term fits and engaging with them first rather than playing "a game of chance" and weighing bids after they arrive.

Heiberg sees the new I.O.C. president, Thomas Bach, already leaning in this direction. "I think this will come for 2024, 2026 and so on, but it may be a little late for 2022," Heiberg said.

Bach, who assumed his post last year, has encouraged debate and fresh thinking. There already is a focus on reducing the cost of bidding, but what seems even more desirable is reducing the footprint of the Games once bidding is done. Sustainability should be a mantra, and while "higher, faster, stronger" remains a fine motto, it seems that new-age Olympics would be better served by "smaller, smarter, leaner."

Why not embrace the right message, while continuing to rotate continents? Why not take the Winter and Summer Games back much more often to cities that have staged them — places that already have the stadiums and infrastructure and municipal expertise?

Why not insist that the international federations scale back their ambitions and reward new bidders for proposing temporary venues and low-cost options? Why not pick cities more on the basis of which could benefit most from the Olympics rather than which could benefit the Olympics most?

Change, it would seem, is not optional at this stage, as one look at the shrinking list of candidates for 2022 should make clear.