Solberg caught in Olympic battle

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The heated debate over whether Oslo should bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2022 has created an Olympic-sized headache for Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Her government must decide whether to offer the needed state financial guarantee for the huge sporting event, and risks infuriating voters if she ignores strong public opposition.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has to decide whether the state should go along with sports and business pressure to financially guarantee an Olympics to pay attention to the will of the people and many within her own party and government who want to finally see an end to the expensive project. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has to decide whether the state should go along with sports and business pressure to financially guarantee an Olympics, or whether she should pay attention to the will of the people and many within her own party and government who want to drop the expensive project. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Solberg’s party, the Conservatives (Høyre), “risks becoming highly unpopular and losing voters, if they defy the will of the people,” Anders Todal Jenssen, a professor at Norway’s leading university in Trondheim, NTNU, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday.

The issue has raged for nearly two years, ever since Oslo’s Conservatives-led government bowed to the wishes of Norwegian sports officials and agreed to mount a bid for an Olympics in 2022. They’ve already spent tens of millions of Oslo taxpayers’ money on the effort and have budgeted another NOK 100 million for the “Oslo2022” project next year.

It’s the state, though, that must ultimately take on financial responsibility, according to demands from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Conservatives’ delegation in Parliament is expected to announce this week whether it supports a state financial guarantee for NOK 35.1 billion (roughly USD 6 billion), even though no one knows what the Olympics will actually cost. Norway has already hosted two Winter Olympics and despite the success of Lillehammer in 1994, its costs also turned out to be more than three times those initially estimated, in line with the pattern of budget overruns at nearly every Olympics over the past several decades.

Grass roots negative
Public opposition to hosting another Olympics has been so strong that politicians who choose to ignore it risk losing future elections, Jenssen cautions. He notes that while powerful sports, business and labour lobbyists are exerting enormous pressure on politicians to support a state guarantee, grass roots attitudes remain negative despite a slight upturn in a poll for newspaper Dagbladet on Tuesday.

Solberg, whose government minister in charge of culture and sports supports the Olympic project, faces divided opinion elsewhere within her own party. She got more bad news on Monday when all of the Conservatives’ chapters in Northern Norway voted to oppose an Olympics in Oslo. Party leaders in the counties of Finnmark, Troms and Nordland united in an effort to block the project including the popular mayor of Tromsø, Jens Johan Hjort, one of Solberg’s biggest backers. He had been positive to “Oslo2022,” but newspaper Dagsavisen reported that he has now changed his mind.

The Conservatives already face stated opposition to the Olympic project from their own government coalition partner, the Progress Party, and from various chapters of one of their support parties in Parliament, the Christian Democrats.

Unusual alliance with Labour looms
That means Solberg and her Conservatives must rely on support from their arch-rival Labour Party if they’re to risk voter backlash and push the Olympic project through Parliament. Both parties are said to traditionally be “obedient” regarding the wishes of Norway’s powerful sports lobby, wanting to be seen as great backers of athletics, but the huge costs and uncertainty around Olympic budgets has raised a split within Labour as well.

“For Labour, the problem is at least as big,” Jenssen told NRK, noting that Labour has “even more voters opposed to an Olympics and Labour can be standing alone with the Conservatives, against the people.” On the other hand, if both parties ignore the will of the voters, the ill effects may be easier to bear, he said.

Rolv Lyngstad, a professor at the University of Nordland, nonetheless claimed it can be “dramatic for both Labour and the Conservatives” as soon as next fall, if they support the controversial Olympic bid and voters turn against both parties during the important municipal elections.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund