After months of pressure, Norway’s national athletics federation has finally turned over its expense accounts for both the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the Youth Olympics in Lillehammer last year. Both revealed some lavish spending on luxury hotels, meals and alcoholic beverages, and now the federation has chosen a new leader to replace the one who was largely responsible for the big bills.
Karen Kvalevåg, age 51, was presented as the new secretary general of the athletics federation (Norges Idrettsforbund, NIF) on Thursday. She’ll now be the one leading Norway’s largest mostly voluntary organization into a new era of more openness and accountability demanded not only by restive members but also the top politician who forks over state funds, Culture Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland.
It was Helleland who ultimately lost patience with the men who’ve been leading the large sports organizations. They included Inge Andersen, who was basically asked to step down by NIF’s board earlier this year. Andersen held the job for 13 years and was criticized for his lack of transparency in a powerful position at the top of an entrenched sports bureaucracy.
It was under Andersen that NIF, according to receipts turned over to Norwegian journalists this week, ended up paying NOK 2.5 million (more than USD 400,000 at the time) for hotel rooms alone for guests at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Wednesday that the hotel bills included one for a suite at the luxury Marriott Hotel in Sochi that cost USD 1,728 per night and was booked for 17 nights. Among those staying in the suite were King Harald and Queen Sonja, who allowed the athletics organization to pick up their bill for five nights. Prime Minister Erna Solberg also stayed in the suite, for three nights, but her office covered the cost.
High room rates
NIF couldn’t account for who else used the suite, apart from former Culture Minister Thorhild Widvey. NIF officials insisted they had to book for the entire 17 nights of the Olympics. The other hotel rooms cost around NOK 5,000 per night (USD 833). Those expenses came in addition to NOK 500,000 for food and some extra rooms at the Marriott, and did not include the cost of accommodation elsewhere for the athletes and their support staff.
All told, NIF spent NOK 18.2 million at the Sochi Olympics plus another NOK 9 million on the so-called “Norway House,” which served as a reception center and played a large if controversial role in the City of Oslo’s bid at the time to host the Winter Olympics in 2022. A lack of support from the public and ultimately the state government later halted that project, because of the huge expense involved.
In addition to the costs in Sochi, NIF was also forced to account for its budget overruns when hosting the Youth Olympics in Lillehammer last year. Included among the expenses were two dinners at the home of the president of the Parliament, Olemic Thommessen, that amounted to NOK 168,393. Guests included royals from both Norway and Denmark, top local and national politicians and members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Debate later broke out with NIF over the dinners because they were not approved by the organization’s board and didn’t even include all board members. “There was no written agreement (about the dinner or how NIF would cover their expense),” confirmed Niels Røine, communications chief for NIF. He said Andersen and Thommessen had merely “talked together,” Thommessen offered the use of his home, the former secretary general “thought it was a good idea and so it happened.” Asked whether the board was even consulted, Røine said, “no, the board was not informed. The secretary general (Andersen) acted alone.”
Aftenposten reported that the expense and not least the costs of alcohol both at one of the dinners and at other events became a hot topic of discussion among NIF officials. They weren’t pleased and didn’t think alcohol was appropriate at a sports event for teenaged athletes, even if it wasn’t served while they were present.
“The entire representation program became a topic of discussion afterwards, within the administration and the board,” Røine told Aftenposten. “There was debate over what we did was necessary, correct and what we can learn from it.”
Thommessen, who’s also landed in political trouble over huge budget overruns and a lack of disclosure in his job as president of the Parliament, has also caught more criticism for actually being the one who invited to the dinners, written on letterhead from his office that’s second only to the monarch’s, but didn’t pick up the bill.
Thommessen, currently on a trip to Washington DC, claimed that it was NIF “who took contact with me … (because) they wanted the ‘official Norway’ to be visible during the Youth Olympics.” Thommessen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) he wasn’t aware of what the dinners cost. “NIF had an events company that decided the menu, the guest list, entertainment and all that, so I’ve never seen any bills, I just opened up my house,” Thommessen said. Aftenposten reported that Thommessen’s own son Mons Michael Thommessen, a violinist, was among the paid entertainers at the event.
Guests included Crown Prince Haakon, Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Fredrik of Denmark, IOC boss Thomas Bach, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Culture Minister Linda Helleland, and former skiing stars Kjetil André Aamodt and Bjørn Dæhlie. Asked what it meant for Thommessen, a veteran politician for the Conservative Party, to have so many prominent guests in his home, Thommessen told NRK that “it wasn’t anything more than a nice event and I think it’s nice to support Norwegian athletics. The Youth Olympics is something the entire Parliament supports.”
Tom Tvedt, president of NIF, finally broke his silence Thursday about how NIF has been spending its money. He told NRK he “doesn’t sit on all the details, the administration does much of the work, and there are things that come up that you’re not aware of.” He said he doesn’t think thousands of kroner will be spent any longer on alcohol for guests, for example, and he criticized NIF’s administration under Andersen for paying NOK 750,000 to get positive coverage of the Youth Olympics in the publication Around the Rings.
Culture Minister Helleland, who’s been pressuring NIF to improve its transparency, also had demanded that Tvedt answer questions about the use of its funds, which primarily come from the state and an enormous corps of volunteers around the country. They’ve also been in uproar over how, as they see it, sports bureaucrats in Oslo in living the high life while they struggle to raise money for local sporting events through cake sales and other fund-raising efforts.
“We have opened our accounts, what’s come forth is how it has been,” Tvedt said.
New leader at the helm
Now a new secretary general, Karen Kvalevåg will take NIF forward. Kvalevåg, who succeeds Andersen, is educated as an accountant from Norway’s top business school NHH in Bergen. She most recently has headed the Oslo Marathon and run the Vidar sports club after a long career in business as chief executive of Umoe, which has more than 5,000 employees and owns restaurants Peppes pizza, TGIFriday and Starbucks in Norway. She also has worked for pharmaceutical firm Nycomed, Elkem and Maxbo.
“I’m 51 years old and have 25 years of leadership experience in business,” she told NRK. “I went to school in Stavanger and Bergen. I have two beautiful children and see the joy of sports and team spirit.” She beat out 44 candidates for the job.
“I have the impression that Norwegian athletics has many challenges,” Kvalevåg said, “but most of all it has incredibly many fantastic opportunities, and is a public movement with great commitment.” Tvedt thinks she’s the right person to take on the “complicated and complex” job as NIF’s administrative leader after a turbulent period.