Referendum set over Olympic bid

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Taxpayers in Oslo are going to get a rare chance to vote on an issue that involves billions of their tax money: Whether the city should host the Winter Olympics in 2022. Sports bureaucrats pushing hard to secure funding for an Olympics, who thought they’d won the nod of local elected officials, are not pleased.

Some Norwegians dream of mounting another Olympics like the one in Lillehammer in 1994. Others dread the thought, and think the huge amounts of money needed would be better spent on other things. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Scanpix

Børre Rognlien, president of the national athletics association (Idrettsforbundet), was quick to complain to local media after news broke this week that city politicians had agreed to hold a referendum on the Olympics as part of a budget compromise. Rognlien claims the Olympics (simply called “OL” in Norway) is really a national event with the state likely to contribute the most funding.

“Therefore I think it’s wrong if it’s only Oslo’s population who will get a say,” Rognlien told newspaper Aftenposten for example. He claimed four or five other counties in southeastern Norway will likely be directly involved as well, and then they should have a say in the matter, too.

Oslo taxpayers left with the bill
Rognlien acknowledged, though, that it is the City of Oslo that would apply individually to host the Olympics, and that leaves the city largely responsible for preparing for the huge sporting event and paying for it. And that’s where the political debate arises. The enormous cost of an Olympics, fears the conservative Progress Party, can come at the expense of schools, nursing homes, day care centers and other vital city services that already are under severe budget pressure.

Carl I Hagen, head of the Progress Party’s bloc on the Oslo City Council, thus insisted that taxpayers in Oslo be allowed to vote on the Olympic issue. Referenda are not common in Norway, with most all major decisions left to elected politicians. In this case, though, Hagen’s demand for an Olympic referendum was met in order to help get the city’s budget approved.

City officials have thus set aside NOK 5 million to cover the cost of asking Oslo residents whether they really want to host an Olympics in 2022, with all the new construction it will entail. Some argue it will provide the incentive Oslo needs to improve public transport, build new sports facilities and even housing. Others dread the very thought of an Olympics and the debt it may leave, with future use or need for all the Olympic facilities highly unclear.

Referendum in September
The referendum will be held in connection with national elections next fall. That’s after the Oslo City Council is due to officially decide, in July, whether to apply for the state funding guarantee needed to host the Olympics. A general plan for where arenas and athletes’ housing will be constructed is due in March, along with as firm an estimate of costs as possible. City officials already have approved the millions needed just to carry out all the preliminary work tied to a prospective application.

If voters reject the Olympic project, city officials will be left in an awkward position but would be expected to bow to the majority. Rognlien likely worries that while politicians mostly seem to have embraced the idea of hosting an Olympics, the general public may torpedo the entire project. Some Norwegian websites were already urging Oslo residents to vote “no” in the referendum, arguing the billions needed would be better spent on other projects.

The deadline for potential host cities applying to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is in March of 2014, with candidates to be chosen in July 2014 and a decision on the host set for July 31, 2015.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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