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The Grim, Remote Future of the Winter Olympics

This winter, Moscow spent more than $50 billion to highlight Mother Russia at the Sochi Olympics but mostly got attention for poisoning stray dogs, mounting a massive security operation, violating human rights, and cost overruns. Results such as those are making potential future Winter Olympic hosts slalom away. Oslo, the front-runner to host the 2022 ...

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

This winter, Moscow spent more than $50 billion to highlight Mother Russia at the Sochi Olympics but mostly got attention for poisoning stray dogs, mounting a massive security operation, violating human rights, and cost overruns. Results such as those are making potential future Winter Olympic hosts slalom away.

Oslo, the front-runner to host the 2022 games, withdrew its candidacy on Wednesday, citing financial concerns. That leaves only two cities — Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing — as potential sites. If Sochi seemed remote and the Kremlin an oppressive host, get ready for a torch-lighting ceremony on the steppes under the steely gaze of Kazakh autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev. Welcome to the secluded, authoritarian future of the Winter Olympics.

Oslo is only the latest city to tear up its application. Cities in Poland, Ukraine, and Sweden all pulled out earlier this year; Alpine glamour spots in Switzerland and Germany also withdrew their bids. In referenda, German and Swiss voters showed their unwillingness to foot the bill for a turn on the international spotlight that, even in less extravagant Olympiads, can cost billions — and ultimately without much economic return. Facilities such as bobsled courses and ice hockey stadiums are expensive, and not very useful once Olympians leave.

Sochi looked like a ghost town only a few weeks after the closing ceremony. Though the massive event created temporary local jobs, experts predicted then that the Russian economy wouldn’t significantly benefit. Only one Olympics in history turned a profit without burdening taxpayers — 1984’s Los Angeles Games, which were underwritten by corporate sponsors. European taxpayers, in short, don’t want to pay for a blowout party. They may have different thoughts about Summer Games: bidding to host the 2024 Olympics begins next year, and cities in Germany, France, and Italy have expressed interest.

In the winter of 2022, deep-pocketed and ambitious hosts will take their place. Kazakhstan and China both have the cash to take on the games and are interested in prestige projects. China hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, earning credit for an impressive and historic turn on the world stage; clearly, Beijing thinks the scrutiny of its human-rights and environmental records that accompanied the games was a worthy tradeoff. And Nazarbayev has spent billions on an ostentatious remodelling of the Kazakh capital, Astana. The leader who in 2004 opened a brand-new presidential palace called Akorda, or "White Horde," would probably love to build a few stadiums and rinks.

A Kazakh or Chinese Olympics would come with significant human-rights baggage. Astana severely limits speech rights and torture in the country’s jails is common. That could be a PR disaster: athletes or nations might boycott. Corporate sponsors might shy away after the public anger they incurred by underwriting Sochi. The 2008 Beijing Games were protested by pro-Tibet activists. Ongoing ethnic turmoil there and in Xinjiang could lead to similar controversies in 2022. And of course, there’s the money. Kazakhstan is building plenty in preparation for the 2017 World Expo, but the Winter Olympics would require shelling out even more for up-to-date, Olympic-sized athletic facilities. That would means huge costs — and probably, a great deal of cash for Nazarbayev’s friends. Is any open society willing to foot the bill?

 @s__engler

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