SOCHI -- Dear Citizens of Norway,
I don’t need to tell you that your capital, Oslo, is bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Or that, according to pre-Sochi polling, some 55 percent of you don’t want them.
Or at least a majority of you doesn’t want your government to approve a relatively modest financial guarantee of $5.4 billion, less than one-ninth the cost of the Sochi Olympics, which the IOC would need to give Oslo the Olympics.
And that means we have a problem, you and I. Because the world desperately wants you -- needs for you -- to change your mind.
The last Winter Olympics you hosted, in Lillehammer in 1994, charmed us. Atmospheric flurries fell on an Opening Ceremony that featured a torchbearer who flew off the ski jump. Two weeks of clear, windless weather followed. As if on cue, light snow returned just as the closing ceremonies began. And you supplied an unmatched atmosphere throughout, with tens of thousands of you camping out overnight along the cross-country course to wave flags and rattle cowbells as Bjorn Daehlie skied to his gold medals.
If your concern is that an Oslo Olympics would be too big and costly, don’t let the current Winter Games mislead you. Sochi is an anomaly, its $51 billion price tag the result of building an Olympics from scratch in a country with a culture of corruption totally alien to you. Because more than half of Oslo’s envisioned venues already exist, bid organizers peg the cost at only $3.4 billion in public funds, and another $2 billion to be raised privately.
Yes, the Winter Olympics have grown bigger than a town like Lillehammer, with its population of 22,000, could accommodate today. But that’s why Oslo 2022 CEO Eli Grimsby insists that Oslo 2022 would not be “Lillehammer II.” And Oslo is, in its way, perfect for a Winter Games in the 21st century -- a major international city with ethnic diversity, urban parkland and reliable winter weather.
If you’re not sold on the virtues of your own capital, consider what, if you were to decline, we’d be condemned to. Now that Munich, Stockholm and St. Moritz have dropped out, the other candidates are Beijing, Krakow, Lviv and Almaty.
If there’s snow and ice anywhere near Beijing, you couldn’t see it through the haze. Besides, we just had a Summer Games there in 2008—and if China were slotted in after Pyeongchang (2018) and Tokyo (2020), that would make for three straight Olympics in Asia.
Krakow? Love Krakow. Great town square. A UNESCO World Heritage town square, no less. Krakow 2022: Best Medals Plaza Ever! And if Winter Olympic events were staged in potato fields, the Polish bid would get a spot on my list. But for a mountain large enough for the downhill, organizers propose going to Slovakia, which is another country altogether. Joint bids are heavy organizational lifts that, fortunately, the IOC frowns upon.
The candidacy of Lviv suffered this week from the Ukrainian government’s deadly crackdown on demonstrators in Kiev, which led many athletes to leave Sochi early. Given the grief the IOC got over its decision to award these Olympics to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the world would groan if the Winter Games were handed to another democracy-flouting country on the Black Sea.
And then there’s Almaty. Worldly though you Norwegians are, you may be forgiven for not knowing that Almaty is in Kazakhstan. Almaty used to be the capital, but in 1997 lost that status to Astana. So it is now the demoted capital of Kazakhstan.
And there’s the lace-panties issue. Just last week, 30 women were arrested after taking to the streets of Almaty with lace panties pulled over their heads to protest a ban on the importation of same. (It had to do with—I’m not making this up—the inability of lace panties to absorb moisture at government-mandated levels for underwear.)
No, Norway, you would not want a sequel to Borat on your conscience.
Seriously: In the end, it’s not about your inferior competition. It’s about you -- and we love you.
We love you for your humility, for the way biathlete Ole-Einar Bjoerndalen essentially apologized this week for surpassing the all-time Winter Olympics medal record of his countryman, Daehlie.
We love you for your frugality. In Lillehammer you wound up with a $70 million surplus, and an Oslo Olympics could once again model thrift for the world. Much of those $2 billion in private funds would build a media village, which could be repurposed post-Olympics to help house the fastest growing population of any capital in Europe. (I can assure you that we journalists don’t need luxurious accommodations -- though after Sochi, a shower curtain in the bathroom would be nice.)
We love you for your common sense. Like municipalities all over the world, your cities and towns have lately gone through brutal rounds of budget cutting, and that explains the skepticism of many of you. But a well-organized Games would goose everything from grassroots sports participation and the arts, to volunteerism and multicultural cohesion, no small thing in Oslo, which has an immigrant population that includes 150 nationalities. As Grimsby says, “It’s easier to find the price of the bid than the value in it.”
We love you for your compassion. You’re the people who quoted Robert Frost over the p.a. to U.S. speedskater Dan Jansen after he won his gold medal in Lillehammer. You’re the people who sent 13 tons of sports equipment to Eritrea with Jansen’s rival, multiple medalist and Right to Play founder Johann Olav Koss, after the Lillehammer Games ended. You’re the people who gave Bill Koch of the U.S., the cross-country skier with that newfangled skating technique, all kinds of guff when he competed during the Eighties -- and then flew him to Oslo in the Nineties so a dozen of your former skiers, from several generations, could apologize to him, each handing him a single red rose on live TV.
We love you for the way you honor tradition, but aren’t afraid to freshen it up. The Nordic center in the suburb of Holmenkollen remains a monument to Oslo’s role as host of the 1952 Winter Olympics, but now with a dazzling new ski jump, built for the 2011 World Championships you so ably hosted. And an Oslo Olympics would, for old time’s sake, even have a little Lillehammer thrown in, with bobsled, luge and skeleton going off on the ice run at Hunderfossen, the slalom taking place at Hafjell, and the downhill at Kvitfjell, where Alberto Tomba won his last Olympic medal. Rail lines and highways, improved since 1994, and a new airport north of Oslo, would put Lillehammer within two hours of the capital, which is nothing by Turin and Vancouver standards.
We love how you value youth. So consider an Oslo Olympics a gift to your compatriots now in high school, who support the Games by a two-to-one margin; and for the city’s elementary schoolchildren, nearly half of whom speak a language other than Norwegian at home, and for whom a domestic Olympics would be a global festival of affirmation. And if you’re elderly, follow the lead of former Oslo mayor Per-Ditlev Simonsen, who vows to serve as an Olympic volunteer because in 2022 he’ll only be 90.
And it’s not just kids you love. You love dogs, too -- no small consideration after Sochi, where they were put down, and Pyeongchang, where they’ll show up on menus. (Old joke: In Korea, they say “It’s raining cats and appetizers.”)
Opposition to Oslo’s bid is strongest among those of you up north, where the 2018 candidacy of Tromso wasn’t even put forward by your national Olympic committee and hard feelings persist. But to withhold support from a Norwegian candidacy because of some sectional rivalry would be unworthy of you. The northernmost among you are Norway’s hardiest citizens, and most likely to embrace friluftsliv, the healthy, outdoors lifestyle that helps account for your sitting atop the all-time Winter Olympic medals table, with 324 as of Friday.
I understand too that some of you, especially beyond Oslo, have an issue with 2022 tub-thumper Gerhard Heiberg, the grandee who ran the Lillehammer Games and now sits on the IOC. You don’t like the IOC’s undemocratic culture and take it out on Heiberg, whom you find a bit snooty. Even if he looks like he chooses his clothes from the closet of the guy who used to be married to Diana Ross, there’s no need to punish the rest of us.
This is bigger than that, and deadlines are sneaking up on you. By July the IOC will have trimmed its list down to three, and by the end of the year your parliament will have to approve that financial guarantee. The final verdict from the IOC comes in July 2015.
I’ve heard about the origins of your tradition of idraet, the principle of “sport in service of nation,” that has made humble servant-champions of your skiers and skaters and biathletes, and even of your loudly-trousered male curlers. All I’m asking for is an inversion of idraet: “nation in service of sport.”
So don’t let the rest of the world down. Embrace your destiny. And take courage in knowing that the toughest thing about an Oslo Olympics would likely be choosing among Koss, Daehlie and Bjoerndalen for the honor of lighting the cauldron.
The Lords of the Rings couldn’t possibly want to give the Games to anyone else. Please don’t force them to.