Oslo boosters campaign in Sochi

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As Norwegian athletes started collecting medals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi over the weekend, a large delegation of politicians and bureaucrats from the City of Oslo is also in Sochi and trying to score a victory themselves. Their goal is to secure the rights to host the Olympics (simply called “OL” in Norway) in Oslo in 2022, even though a majority back home opposes their project.

Hallstein Bjercke, one of the Oslo politicians pushing hard to win favour for a Winter Olympics in Oslo in 2022, unveiled the project's new applicant logo to mixed reviews last week. Public opinion is still running strong against the project because of its high costs. PHOTO: Oslo Kommune

Hallstein Bjercke, one of the Oslo politicians pushing hard to win favour for a Winter Olympics in Oslo in 2022, unveiled the project’s new applicant logo to mixed reviews last week. The logo was designed by local architecture firm Snøhetta at a cost of more than NOK 100,000. Public opinion is still running strong against the project because of its high costs. PHOTO: Oslo Kommune

Fully 16 representatives of the city-funded “Oslo2022” campaign plus seven Oslo politicians will be in Sochi over the next two weeks to exploit the OL hype, rub elbows with sports dignitaries from around the world and, not least, lobby members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Newspaper Aftenposten reported that no official promotion of applicant cities is allowed before November 1, except during the actual Winter Games in Sochi.

So the City of Oslo, Norway’s national athletics federation Norges Idrettsforbund and the Lillehammer region (which would once again host bobsled and alpine events at another Olympics in Norway) are spending NOK 6 million (nearly USD 1 million) of taxpayers’ money to promote the Oslo2022 project. Eli Grimsby, the director of Oslo2022 who’s the only official from Oslo who’ll be in Sochi during the entire Olympic run in Sochi, thinks the cost of the delegation’s presence is worth the money and that their budget is modest.

Eli Grimsby, director of Oslo's Olympic project, has now traveled from Oslo to Sochi, where she's spending the next few weeks as part of a large Norwegian delegation intent on drumming up support for Oslo's OL bid. PHOTO: Oslo2022/Mathias Fossum

Eli Grimsby, director of Oslo’s Olympic project, has now traveled from Oslo to Sochi, where she’s spending the next few weeks as part of a large Norwegian delegation intent on drumming up support for Oslo’s OL bid. PHOTO: Oslo2022/Mathias Fossum

“We’re staying down in (the city of) Sochi itself, where we found hotels at a room price that was a fourth of what it would have cost up in the mountains,” Grimsby told Aftenposten. The city already has spent tens of millions of kroner on the Oslo2022 project since it was launched more than two years ago, but earlier has also claimed that its expenditures are justifiable.

Others aren’t so sure, with even Andreas Selliaas, a former adviser to the athletics federation who also has been a researcher for the Oslo-based foreign policy institute NUPI, questioning the millions being spent in Sochi. He agrees that it’s important for the OL boosters to try to influence the decision-makers at the IOC, along with officials from Norway’s own government who will be in Sochi over the next two weeks. The Norwegian government hasn’t yet decided whether it will provide an essential financial guarantee for an Oslo Olympics expected to cost at least NOK 30 billion, and given the strong public opposition to the project, the Oslo2022 boosters need to lobby them, too.

But Selliaas questions, as have others, whether it’s worth “so many millions” to “send so many representatives” to Sochi. “When public opinion in Norway is so negative as it is, and the government parties are so uncertain as they are, it can be viewed negatively in Norway,” Selliaas told Aftenposten. “They (Grimsby and her colleagues) need to justify the trip well, and maybe that still won’t be good enough.”

Oslo advantage already
Jomar Selvaag, who worked on the “Lillehammer-OL in 1994” campaign and is currently working on the upcoming Youth Olympics Games in Lillehammer in 2016, defended the expenditure in Sochi as “completely necessary.” Selvaag noted that all the other contenders for the Olympics in 2022 are also in Sochi with large delegations, and that it’s important to be visible and conduct marketing aimed at the decision-makers.

He admits Oslo already has a strong advantage because of the success of the Lillehammer Olympics and Norway’s strong position within winter sports. That in turn has raised questions over why Oslo2022’s expensive promotion is necessary, after would-be organizers in Sweden, Germany, Austria and Switzerland all dropped out of the running because of cost concerns. Oslo is thus heavily favoured over remaining competitors, which have included organizers in Poland, China, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Luring IOC to ‘Norway House’
Grimsby and her team, meanwhile, have set up “Norway House” in Sochi, near the site of the daily medal awards ceremonies. Gerhard Heiberg, the IOC member from Norway who helped spearhead the Oslo2022 project in 2011, told newspaper VG that he’ll help again by steering fellow IOC members towards Norway House where they’ll be fed, offered drinks and get an earful about the Oslo boosters’ plans.

“In addition, it’s important for the (government) officials from Norway who’ll be in Sochi to hear how IOC members see Oslo’s chances to get the OL in 2022,” Heiberg told VG. Norway’s official visitors in Sochi will include Prime Minister Erna Solberg, her ministers for trade and culture (Monica Mæland and Thorhild Widvey) and, later, Health Minister Bent Høie.

The Norwegian government ministers have been urged against visiting Sochi, to protest the Russian government’s treatment of homosexuals. Solberg and her colleagues have decided to attend anyway, with Høie, who is openly gay himself, traveling to Sochi for the Paralympics, which follow the Olympics, with his husband Dag Terje Solvang. “We look forward to travel and cheer all the Norwegian athletes who are taking part,” Høie told newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad last week.

Høie, who will represent the Norwegian government while in Sochi, wouldn’t say whether his decision to bring along Solvang was his means of defying Russia’s anti-gay legislation, saying merely that it was “natural” to bring one’s spouse when attending such events.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund