After three years of public debate and three hours of “long and good” discussions amongst themselves, Members of Parliament from the ruling Conservative Party voted against supporting a state financial guarantee for a Winter Olympics in Oslo in 2022. That effectively kills off the controversial and expensive plans by the City of Oslo to host the huge sporting event.
“It had to be something that people really wanted,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg told reporters Wednesday evening after being told herself that her parliamentary delegation had landed on the same decision that her government coalition partner, the Progress Party, made last spring. “I always said it was important to have broad public support for a project that would cost so much money.”
That support simply didn’t exist, and the City of Oslo withdrew its application for the state guarantee immediately. One public opinion poll after another has shown a majority of Norwegians opposed to spending at least NOK 35 billion (nearly USD 6 billion) on an Olympics. The lavish spending at Sochi last winter was widely criticized in Norway, as was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its demands for everything from tax breaks to fancy hotels and their own lanes to drive in on local highways.
Unorganized opposition surfaced early
Residents in Northern Norway and other districts outside Oslo were opposed from the beginning, claiming that only Oslo would see any benefit from the huge investment. Oslo taxpayers faced being responsible for most of the bill, but the IOC demanded a state guarantee to cover costs that have nearly always greatly exceeded budgets in most every prior Olympics.
Even though a low turnout of voters in Oslo approved the project in a referendum last fall, support in Oslo eventually evaporated over the past year as well, and in recent days, even the grassroots athletic organizations shifted over to the opposition. They feared that most of the money spent on new Winter Olympics facilities would never be used by the vast majority of amateur athletes. “The Holmenkollen Ski Jump cost two billion kroner (around USD 300 million, and four times its original budget) and how many really get to use it?” one father and local ski coach volunteer mused on national radio earlier this week. He worried that the massive Olympic spending would come at the expense of local athletics organizations.
Listened to the people
The vast majority of voters, according to the polls and myriad published commentaries and letters to editors, simply felt the project wasn’t worth it and in the end, politicians had to listen to them. Professors warned earlier this week that political parties that failed to listen to the people risked a voter backlash at the next elections.
“There was no reason to go further with this project,” said Trond Helleland, a Conservative Member of Parliament and spokesman for the party’s parliamentary group. The amount already spent just on the planning and application process has cost the City of Oslo between NOK 185 million and NOK 300 million, depending on who’s speaking for the city. Helleland and his colleagues clearly felt it was time to cut losses.
He conceded that “many are disappointed today,” not least the business and hotel owners who supported the bid and the Olympic application committee (Oslo2022) and Norway’s powerful sports lobby, which normally gets what it wants from both local and state politicians. “But there are lots of other things to look forward to,” Helleland said, pointing to the Youth Olympics in Lillehammer in 2016 and the Cycling World Championships that Bergen will host in 2017.
Spin doctors supreme
At a chaotic, hastily called press conference in City Hall which included microphones falling off tables, city and sports officials tried to put a brave face on their loss. Commentators called them the “biggest losers” of all because they failed to muster support for an Olympics, even in sports-crazed Norway, among the public and many of their own. They claimed that some renewal of local sports facilities would still take place as they tried to justify the expense of their failed Olympic project.
“It could have been fun,” Solberg, who was under huge pressure over the Olympic project, told reporters. “But when there were so many questions, so much skepticism and so much money involved, there was no point in moving forward with this.” Her own government minister in charge of culture and sports, Thorhild Widvey, had supported the project and was mostly silent, conceding defeat by her own party and that she was disappointed.
The two remaining applicants for the Winter Olympics in 2022 are Beijing and Almaty in Kazakhstan, after earlier bidders in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Poland also withdrew their bids. The future of the Winter Olympics may now be in question, given all the criticism over costs, demands from the IOC and the willingness only from authoritarian regimes to host them. Norwegian politicians and their constituents, however, didn’t think it was their responsibility to try to save the IOC from itself after all.