Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Hosting the games has become a sprawling, expensive, drama-filled honor.
Thanks, but no thanks. That’s the message the city of Oslo sent to the International Olympic Committee last week, by withdrawing its bid for the 2022 Winter Games. Long the frontrunner to host the event, Norway’s capital now joins an embarrassingly long list of cities that have passed up the opportunity to stage the 2022 shindig. Stockholm, Krakow, and Lviv all canceled initial bids to host, while referendums in Munich and Switzerland’s St. Moritz barred those cities from entering a bid in the first place. This now leaves only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, as potential hosts, neither of which are established winter sports cities. This global snubbing is a major headache for the IOC, whose whispered reputation for sleaze and self-importance seems to be finally catching up with it. But what makes Oslo’s withdrawal all the more striking is that 55 percent of its citizens voted "yes" to the games in a referendum a year ago. So what has made the Norwegian parliament, which voted to abandon its bid last week, swing against the games?
Part of the answer lies in the IOC’s high-handed demands. These helped to poison the atmosphere and led to the Norwegian media dubbing the games a “pamper-party.” Indeed, local media have really gone to town on the IOC, feeding the public snippets from a long list of prima donna-ish demands cribbed from a 7,000-page IOC handbook. According to newspaper Dagbladet, it included a demand for a cocktail party with the Norwegian royal family (where they royals themselves would be expected to pick up the bill), officials-only traffic lanes through the city, and separate entry points at the airport, where officials would be greeted with a mandatory smile. To keep the wheels of the event well lubricated, the IOC also requested an assurance that all bars in hotels hosting them would stay open “extra late."
Tabloid Verdens Gang also chimed in, noting that the IOC stated that complementary light snacks and canapés at the stadium were "not enough." The IOC did show admirable restraint in other areas, though. While a full bar at the stadium was a requirement at the opening and closing ceremonies, on normal competition days they were reportedly happy to muddle through with just beer or wine.
This coverage was hotly disputed by the IOC, who have bitterly blamed Norway’s press for the withdrawal of Oslo’s bid. It’s true that many of the IOC’s stipulations are nothing new. London and other hosts have had to make way for Olympic traffic lanes and been obliged to drown the IOC’s sorrows in free whisky. But unlike London, Beijing, or Sochi, Oslo isn’t used to being pushed around by self-important officials. It’s a small city not ideally suited to such a major onslaught—while in a side note, the phenomenally high national cost of alcohol made it easier for locals to read the complementary drink requests as sheer profligacy.
There were also some specifically local complaints that helped tip the scales. The Northern city of Tromsø had also initially hoped to host, but their candidacy had been rejected on grounds of its huge expense. This hardly sweetened Norway’s north to an Oslo-focused spending spree, even though the city tried to placate them by promising to foot more of the bill itself.
The real sticking point, however, was the sheer cost that the 14-day event would require. The estimate was 35 billion Norwegian Kroner ($5.43 billion) with a government guarantee to be placed that, after cuts reached 4.4 billion Kroner ($674 million). This figure was enough to make this country of little over 5 million people balk, despite its considerable wealth. It caused a defection from the "yes" to the "no" camp by MPs from Norway’s Conservative party, the parliament’s largest faction, whose refusal in a vote last week to agree to the government guarantee made it impossible for the bid to continue. In a country where cautious husbandry of oil revenues has made every citizen a crown millionaire, the idea of staking such a large amount on a short public event proved to be just too much.
This slap-down to the IOC from Oslo could be seriously damaging to the Olympics’ reputation, despite the many cities still willing to host the Summer Games. The all-around lack of enthusiasm could be because, while the games’ prestige has remained static, their scale has grown hugely. Dagbladet noted that, since Norway last hosted the Winter Olympics in 1994, their size has almost doubled. At the Lillehammer games, there were 61 events with a little over 1,700 athletes taking part. At Sochi this year there were 98 events with 2,800 athletes. With costs rising to match, it increasingly looks like only one particular type of town is willing to stump up the cash: a city that, while financially on the up, has a reputation that needs laundering.