Powerful Olympic campaign fires up

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UPDATED: Oslo voters, both natives and newcomers, are about to become the targets of powerful campaigners for a Winter Olympics in the Norwegian capital. The campaign, to get them to vote in favour of hosting the 2022 Winter Games in a rare referendum this fall, is backed by strong local interests and the Norwegian member of the International Olympic Committee who started it all, Gerhard Heiberg.

Negotiations between the City of Oslo and the state are getting underway in earnest, after the city formally submitted its application for a financial guarantee for mounting the Winter Olympics in 2022 this week. The two sides got together here earlier this spring, with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Culture Minister Hadia Tajik both indicating they support the effort. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Negotiations between the City of Oslo and the state are getting underway in earnest, after the city formally submitted its application for a financial guarantee for mounting the Winter Olympics in 2022 this week. The two sides got together here earlier this spring, with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Culture Minister Hadia Tajik both indicating they support the effort. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

After a majority on the Oslo City Council voted to move forward with an Olympic bid earlier this month, the city this week formally presented its application for a state funding guarantee. Even though Oslo residents will be primarily responsible for financing the Winter Games, estimated to cost at least NOK 23 billion (nearly USD 4 billion), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demands an unlimited national guarantee.

They’re likely to get it, given all the upbeat coverage of an Olympic bid that’s been surfacing in local media of late. It seems like Heiberg is getting things just as he wanted when he planted the idea of another Olympics in Norway in newspapers like Oslo-based Aftenposten just before the city hosted the Nordic World Ski Championships in 2011. That event sparked debate over its costs, too, since it was held only after the city committed itself to build the new Holmenkollen Ski Jump, resulting in huge budget overruns and major, ongoing operating costs.

Heiberg nonetheless started drumming up support for an Olympics in Oslo amidst the giddiness (and Norwegian victories) of the World Championships and with good reason: Heiberg and the IOC need cities around the world that are willing to foot the bill for the gigantic sports events, both winter and summer. Swiss voters have already turned down efforts to mount another Olympics in 2022 because of their huge costs and only Munich seems, at present, to offer much competition for an Oslo bid. Heiberg has succeeded in getting fellow Norwegians in positions of power to go along with a bid, appealing to local officials’ sense of pride and obligation. Norway is a wealthy country. Many others simply can’t afford an Olympics.

The head of Oslo’s city government, Stian Berger Røsland of the Conservative Party, picked up on the “obligation” factor when kicking off the “Oslo2022” campaign this week: “We send our top athletes around the whole world,” Røsland told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Then we must, now and then, invite folks home to us also.” His government is asking for a state guarantee of NOK 33 billion, to cover the currently budgeted cost of the games plus around NOK 10 billion in private investment. Many think that amount will rise significantly. Røsland claims it’s been “quality assured” and is a realistic cost estimate he’s certain will stand.

Promotional campaign underway
Oslo residents can now expect to be assailed by promotion for the so-called “Games in the City,” because if they vote against it, the effort will likely need to be dropped. There’s a lot at stake for the politicians, business and tourism lobbies, athletes and sports bureaucrats keen on what they call “OL.” All local athletes and sports officials are thus expected to act as “ambassadors” for an Olympics. Boosters will make active use of social media and upcoming sports events in Oslo will have an “Olympic profile,” reported Aftenposten recently.

Promoters also plan to regularly write pro-Olympic commentaries in local media, where they’re likely to be published since media officials seem to support the Olympic bid already. Several pro-Olympic commentaries have already appeared, like one in Aftenposten on May 31 that was signed by former slalom star Finn Christian Jagge and swimmer Sara Nordenstam, among others. Eli Grimsby, the head of the Oslo2022 planning committee, has also been busy writing commentaries or making herself available for media interviews. She claims an Olympics will “bind folks together” and even be good for the public health.

Norway’s national athletics organization, Idrettsforbundet, is also planning to spend NOK 5 million to urge Oslo voters to vote in favour of an Olympics at the referendum in September. The organization’s boss said it was “important” to use the money in the final phase of the Olympic campaign, just before the referendum is held in conjunction with national elections September 9.

Some opposition
Røsland and his fellow Olympics boosters face some opposition. City Council politicians from the Socialist Left party (SV) voted against the bid, arguing that it’s nearly “unethical” to use so much taxpayer money on a few weeks of basking in the international sports spotlight, despite promises of new arenas and their use after the games. Marianne Borgen of SV points out that the city already has spent around NOK 130 million planning its Olympic bid. “We could have had a lot of sports improvements just for that money,” Borgen told Aftenposten on Wednesday.

Trade union confederation LO announced recently that it also opposed efforts to host the games, worrying they would lead to cuts in other government services. Sports organizations in the northern county of Troms, still unhappy that their own bid to host an Olympics fell flat a few years ago, confirmed this week that they had sought NOK 3 million in funding to campaign against an Olympics in Oslo. They figured that since the public sector is already spending millions in support of an Olympic bid, they should get funding to oppose it. The state Ministry of Culture rejected their request, though, another sign that the state seems likely to also support the pro-Olympic effort.

There remain other lone voices of opposition in the wilderness. A few media commentators have wondered whether Oslo, despite the state’s oil wealth, really can afford both the recently approved Munch Museum, a huge parallel redevelopment of the Tøyen district and an Olympics, while also maintaining (if not improving) other public sector obligations from schools to police to elder care. Others worry the country is heading for tougher economic times ahead and should be careful about committing to huge public expenditures.

Even a former member of the organizing committee for the successful 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Ragnhild Sohlberg, has urged caution because of the costs involved. Lillehammer’s initial state guarantee for NOK 1.8 billion ended up needing to be raised to NOK 7.4 billion, she notes. “Costs tied to complicated projects have a tendency to escalate,” she wrote in Aftenposten last winter. Oslo has a track record of exactly that.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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