We are now a week into the Sochi Winter Olympics. The opening ceremony was spectacular, apparently. (I stuck to my regular custom of watching nothing of Olympics opening ceremonies except for the march past of athletes from countries with names starting with the letter I). Many events have apparently gone smoothly, especially the indoor ice events taking place in the city of Sochi itself. There have been a couple of minor issues with individual sporting cultures coming up against strict Olympic rules – for instance the alcohol ban inside venues is said to be “against the spirit of curling”
At the other end of the outrageously expensively constructed road and outrageously expensively constructed railway to the outrageously expensively constructed resort of Krasnaya Polyana in the Greater Caucasus mountains, I am not sure that the snow events are going quite so well. Some of the downhill skiing looks a little slushy to me. Cross Country skiers have at timesbeen competing in T-shirts and shorts in temperatures of around 15 degrees Celsius, I am told. Ski runs in such hastily constructed places are seldom as good as in the most famous resorts of the Alps or the Nordic countries or Canada, and one senses a certain discontent. One can’t tell from the vapid commentary of the BBC coverage – and I suspect the vapid TV coverage in most other countries. Sports journalists and TV networks are too close to the organisers and too close to the sportsmen and too close to the IOC and wish to retain access to all these people and organisations in future to do much but gloss over these things, on the whole.
The odd piece of discontent is being reported. The Australian media is being rather franker than it would be if talking about, say, cricket. (This might have to do with Australia not being much of a winter sports power, and so having less to lose). Combine this with the interesting culture of the sport of snowboarding – arguments at previous Olympics about whether a ban on cannabis use was against the spirit of snowboarding do appear to have been resolved under the table in favour of the snowboarders – and we have found out the snowboarding halfpipe course is “f—king retarded”.
So it is probably fair to say that a huge amount of money has been spent on these games, the money has been filtered through a very corrupt Russian political and economic system and through the IOC, and venues that are good for the ice events and sort of okay for the snow events have been constructed, with the minor problem that it isn’t actually very cold in Sochi in February being a bit of a problem, as predicted.
What does this mean for the future of the winter Olympics?
The 2018 Winter Olympics are in Pyeongchang county in South Korea. Assuming that North Korea does not collapse or try to start a war between now and then, this will be straightforward, as these things go. A vast amount of money has been spent building new world class ski resorts at Alpensia and Yongpyong. These have largely been built already. They were built in anticipation of Pyeongchang winning the Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang also made unsuccessful bids for the games of 2006 and 2010, and has therefore been building for some time. There are already large financial black holes from the construction of these venues, but one cost overruns will be anywhere near as bad as have come from the highly corrupt race to get things built on time that took place prior to Sochi. Plus there have been and will be time for lots of test events to get the venues right. Of course, there are still highly expensive new highways and railways to be built, and a lot of indoor venues to be built for the ice events in the coastal city of Gangneung. As national pride is at stake, South Korean taxpayers will undoubtedly suffer painfully, but South Korea is a rich industrial democracy with competent people in charge. These games will likely go smoothly, but they will cost a lot – just not as much as Sochi.
The venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics has not yet been decided, but the IOC announced last year there were six final bidders: Stockholm (Åre), Sweden; Oslo, Norway; Krakow, Poland (Zakopane, Poland and Jasná, Slovakia); Almaty, Kazakhstan; Lviv, Ukraine; and Beijing (Zhangjiakou), China. [It has always been the case that the indoor ice events would be held in a city and the outdoor snow events in a mountain resort. In recent times the need for the city to be close to the resort has been relaxed somewhat, and I have listed the mountain resort(s) in brackets if it is a long way away from the official host city].
Sweden has already withdrawn their bid, and Norway appears to be close to doing so. The reason: they are seeing the immense expense and horrible shenanigans going on in Sochi. A little secret of the Olympics is that many of the the same people run it every time – the host city largely just picks up the bill. Once the event has ridiculous expenses and large amounts of outright corruption attached to it, this all comes with it to the next venue. Receiving kickbacks on construction projects becomes what it is all about.
Relatively uncorrupt places like Norway and Sweden look at this, and find that they want nothing to do with it. As great centres of winter sport, they have many of the right facilities already, meaning less scope for construction industry kickbacks. This means that for some of the IOC the fact that a country is already prepared for the Games is actually a negative rather than a positive.
Anyway, though, the point is that the two countries best able to host the games end up not being serious candidates.
As for the others: Poland and Slovakia would run the games just fine, but a fair bit of infrastructure and facilities would need to be built. Krakow is a lovely city. Zakopane is a lovely resort, and the Tata mountains are a suitable place for the games, even if the best downhill resorts are on the Slovakian side rather than the Polish side. (Some of the infrastructure construction would not be too counterproductive: Poland built lots of new roads, railways stations and airport terminals before the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, most of which were needed anyway and were part of Poland’s long term post-communist infrastructure modernisation). The Olympic games are not what money should be spent on in the present economic circumstances, though, and one also hopes that the richer countries of the EU are past paying for the Olympics to be held in the poorer countries of the EU (see Athens 2004). But with the EU, who knows?
So the others:
Lviv, Ukraine is far too poor and backwards a place to consider even before the present political turmoil in Ukraine. This is not going to happen.
Almaty, Kazakhstan is a hyper, oil money kind of place. The Olypics there Would be over the top and hilarious, and spending levels would be outrageous. This could be the IOC’s kind of thing, actually. As a positive, the Kazakh winter really is very cold, and the mountains around Almaty are spectacular. So in that way, this would be a good venue.
Then there is Beijing, China. Another Olympic games there would be all about prickly Chinese nationalism again. The Chinese would spend whatever is necessary to pull it off. Lots of clearing of poor people off the streets would occur before the games. Both of Japan and Korea have hosted the games before, which is always likely to get the Chinese riled up. An Olympics here might well happen. One does wonder about the outdoor snow events, though. China does not appear to have any culture of these kinds of sports whatsoever, and a mountain resort at Zhangjiakou would be a spectacular Olympic venue carved out of nothing that would likely become one of the great Olympic ruins in very little time at all, rather like the venues of the summer games of 2008. The Chinese have been doing well in the speed skating and figure skating events in Sochi, though,
My hunch is that the games will be given to Beijing, or perhaps Almaty. Helpfully, or not, the Russian government has endorsed the Chinese bid. Hopefully the Poles will have the good sense to simply get out of the way.
There is risk, though, in giving the games to cities and countries with dubious records on human rights and fragile politics far away from the homes of the sports in question. One day, one of these choices will go badly wrong, and the obvious countries to hold these Games may be so pissed off with the IOC that they me no longer be willing or interested in hosting.
If Beijing or Almaty does get the games, by 2026 it will be a long time since the Winter Olympics will have been held at any of the great skiing resorts of Europe or North America. This is a shame, really, as until recently the winter games has to some extent avoided the excesses of the summer games. Here was an event in which Norway was a superpower, and the sports were all fundamentally ridiculous, even by the standards of other sports. We may miss that.