NEWS ANALYSIS: The Norwegian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was suggesting in local media on Tuesday that Norway should “save” the Winter Olympics (OL), after voters in Switzerland and Germany turned down proposals to arrange it in 2022. The question now facing Norway’s new conservative government and Members of Parliament is whether Norwegian taxpayers should heed his call, at great risk and huge expense.
Gerhard Heiberg has been a member of the IOC since he played a key role in arranging the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994, famously dubbed “the best ever” by former (and controversial) IOC Chairman Antonio Samaranch. It was Heiberg who first planted the idea two years ago, when Oslo was in a festive mood as host of the Nordic skiing world championships in 2011, that Norway should join the bidding for another Winter Olympics, in 2022.
Norwegian sports journalists, bureaucrats and some politicians seized upon the idea and the City of Oslo has since spent tens of millions of kroner already on preparing for a bid. A referendum held at the insistence of skeptical city politicians including Carl I Hagen of the Progress Party gave politicians the necessary green, or at least yellow, light.
Germans and Swiss said ‘no’
Over the weekend, though, voters in four municipalities in and around Munich firmly resisted the expensive temptation of Olympic glory. While Heiberg wondered in newspapers Dagsavisen and Aftenposten on Tuesday why the German voters had all but snubbed the IOC, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) could report that opponents had cited not just the huge expense of mounting an Olympics but also the environmental damage that an Olympics can cause and, perhaps most importantly, a deep mistrust of the Olympic officials like Heiberg himself.
“We must ask ourselves why big winter sports nations like German and Switzerland have said ‘no’ to this,” Heiberg told Dagsavisen. He made a similar comment to Aftenposten, admitting that “it makes an impression” that both Germany and Switzerland turned down what he clearly feels would be the honour of hosting an Olympics. The IOC, Heiberg said, “must find out the reason for this, and whether there’s something we can do” to attract worthy bidders.
Controlling expenses might be a start, as well as forbidding organizers from tearing down forests or uprooting and dislocating thousands of people to make room for huge new sports facilities, as has happened in Beijing and Sochi and many other host cities. Heiberg admitted, as did a clearly pro-OL columnist in Aftenposten, that prospective bidders may have been scared off by the enormous amounts of money (around USD 50 billion) being spent by Russian authorities for the next Olympics in Sochi, yet he and his fellow IOC members have clearly allowed such spending to occur. The so-called “lords of the rings” at the IOC have been criticized over the years for being arrogant, old-fashioned and elitist. They’ve also at least implicitly allowed the money binge that Heiberg himself now seems to deplore.
Calling for a Norwegian ‘yes’
And then Heiberg planted his latest appeal to his fellow Norwegians: “That’s why it’s so important that Norway, with a modest budget, could show that it’s still possible to arrange a sober Olympics,” he told Aftenposten. If Norway doesn’t apply for what Oslo organizers call “Oslo2022,” Heiberg fears the money binge will continue.
“That’s why I say that Norway and Oslo have a great opportunity to succeed, with games that won’t cost too much,” said Heiberg, even though many think Oslo’s budget of NOK 30 billion is very much indeed, and probably unrealistically low. “Norway can drum up enthusiasm and admiration again, like we did in Lillehammer in 1994.”
His suggestion/request couldn’t be more clear: Even though Sweden tentatively entered the ring Monday afternoon with a prospective bid of its own, Norway is now the top candidate for the Winter Olympics in 2022, ahead of its only other rivals in Poland, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and China. All the hype about alleged competition from rival arrangers disappeared with Sunday’s referendum in Germany. The IOC, snubbed by the Swiss and the Germans, needs the Norwegians to put on a Winter Olympics, not the other way around.
It’s now ultimately up to the state government, which must put up a financial guarantee, and the parliament, which must approve it. New Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the Progress Party said in September that she was voting “no” in Oslo’s own Olympic referendum, because she thinks that even one-tenth of Sochi’s budget is too much money when funds are always needed for other projects like schools, roads, health care and nursing homes. Oslo’s sick and elderly may find comfort in the fact that she’s now holding the state’s purse strings that Heiberg so badly wants to untie.