Sports bosses paid millions for PR

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The men who’ve recently been running Norway’s national athletics federation paid out nearly NOK 5 million in just a few months to drum up public support for their unpopular efforts to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Oslo. Two of the sports leaders have either quit or resigned under pressure.

Børre Rognlien (left) was president of NIF when it was trying to convince state officials to financially support another Winter Olympics in 2022. He worked closely with former Oslo city government leader Stian Berger Røsland (center) and the city’s culture and sports minister Halstein Bjercke, who kept pushing for Oslo2022 despite public criticism. Not pictured: Athletics boss Inge Andersen. PHOTO: Kulturdepartementet

Their willingness to spend the equivalent of more than USD 500 an hour at the time on professional influence peddlers is not likely to be well-received by the country’s grass-roots sports clubs that rely heavily on volunteers. They’ve already been complaining bitterly about earlier reports of relatively lavish spending on travel, entertainment and lobbying.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported the latest high-level spending, which follows recent criticism of the sports leaders’ own expense accounts and the other spending on alcohol. NRK reported that from April to December 2013, the Oslo-based communications firm First House, run by the brother of Crown Princess Mette-Marit with many former top politicians on staff, billed the athletics federation NIF (Norges Idrettsforbund) NOK 3,998,732 for work it performed in connection with the city-backed Olympic effort called “Oslo2022.” First House also sent a bill for NOK 722,654 for its services in January and February 2014.

The PR pros at First House billed NIF for such services as  strategy work, answering email, dealing with the media, lobbying politicians and writing newspaper commentaries and letters to the editor that were signed by others than themselves.

First House was especially busy in the run-up to a referendum on the Oslo2022 project. It narrowly won support, but then public sentiment turned sour after the lavish spending on the Winter Olympics at Sochi and alleged arrogance of the International Olympic Committee. Norway’s conservative coalition government ended up refusing to put up the state guarantee needed to finance an Olympics and the entire project was scrapped.

“We can understand that this is lots of money,” NIF’s communications chief Niels Røine told NRK on Tuesday, “but at the same time there was a strategy to get an Olympics to Norway. In connection with the referendum, we went into turbo, and that cost a lot of money.”

Røine said NIF chose First House (which has been controversial because of all the former top politicians who work there and now are paid to influence their former colleagues) because NIF’s leaders felt it had “the best people,” including one of Røine’s predecessors, Ketil Lindseth. Røine said NIF felt a need for external help because “we didn’t have expertise in the house. It was very important to win public opinion, at least in Oslo.”

First House’s leader Per Høiby, whose younger sister is married to Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon, defended his firm’s fees as being “normal in our branch.”  It’s also not the first time NIF has hired First House, which was used to write a report fronted by the current NIF President Tom Tvedt that was supposed to evaluate Norway’s top athletics progreams and set a course for the next several years.

Tvedt, who’s been under pressure on a variety of fronts lately, also defended the expenditures. Newspaper Aftenposten and VG have reported that NIF has spent around NOK 10 million on services from First House alone from 2012 to 2016.

Tvedt admitted, though, that NIF is no longer using First House or other expensive consultants on large projects. While his predecessors arguably left under clouds, he claims he has no intention of quitting as well because of criticism over how NIF has spent state and other funding. Both former leaders Inge Andersen and Børre Rognlien also defended their spending, including on First House. Andersen claimed the spending was “well within their powers and budgets.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund