The International Olympic Committee last week selected Beijing as the host of the 2022 Winter Games. It was a curious choice for a couple of reasons.
First, Beijing held the Summer Games in 2008. Once upon a time, the IOC never would have returned so soon to a city, but the choices were limited and China managed to put on a decent show without sentencing too many reporters to labor camps.
Second, the mountain peaks about an hour’s drive outside Beijing contain almost no snow, a geographical reality that tends to discourage skiing and snowboarding. But, again, the choices were limited.
The only other bid was submitted by Almaty, which is in Kazakhstan. While snow is plentiful around Almaty — the theme of its committee’s promotional video was “Keeping It Real” — there is no infrastructure for an Olympic Games.
In a close vote, the IOC went with China, where Twitter and Facebook are prohibited, instead of Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev was re-elected in 2011 in a not-so-close vote. It looked like this: Nazarbayev 95.55 percent, four other candidates 4.45 percent.
Let freedom ring!
So how did the competition to earn the once-cherished right to hold the Winter Olympics end up between a place without mountain snow and a place where the president rules for life?
Nobody else wanted the games.
Voters in Krakow rejected a proposal to bring the Olympics to Poland by a 70-30 percent margin, which is what’s known as a landslide outside of, like, Kazakhstan. Voters in Munich, home of the famously tragic 1972 Summer Games, turned down the 2022 Winter Games.
A referendum proposing a joint bid of Davos and St. Moritz, in Switzerland, also lost. Oslo said “nei” to the Olympics in Norway, and Ukrainians determined there were more important things to settle in their country than the ice dancing final.
Sweden’s ruling political party issued a statement explaining its aversion to the games coming to Stockholm: “Arranging a Winter Games would mean a big investment in new sports facilities — for example, the bobsled and the luge. They would not be used for any type of activity after an Olympics.”
Right there, in a nutshell, is the conundrum the IOC faces for both the Winter and Summer Games: Expensive, elaborate venues befitting world-class athletes specializing in obscure sports are useless once the world-class athletes depart.
I have been inside hundreds of stadiums on four continents, and Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, the main stage for the 2008 Summer Games, ranks No. 1. Beijing’s Water Cube, the aquatics center built a few blocks away, might rank as No. 2.
The Bird’s Nest costs $9 million a year to maintain for an occasional concert, or a soccer match watched by the few fans in Beijing who care about soccer. Granted, China is a bit peculiar — when table tennis is your national pastime, that qualifies as peculiar — but the public backlash about constructing event-specific venues for the Olympics is universal.
It’s why Boston, which had been regarded as the front-runner to host the first Summer Olympics on U.S. soil since the 1996 games in Atlanta, dropped out of consideration for 2024. The U.S. Olympic Committee is holding out hope that Los Angeles, San Francisco or Washington, D.C., will accept a torch that poses severe consequences for politicians bold enough to propose spending taxes on velodromes.
As for that absence of snow in the mountains outside Beijing, plans are in place to manufacture it with water obtained from reservoirs already depleted in China. Does this sound like a good idea?
If the Olympic Games are to survive — and right now, the emphasis is on the if — a better idea might be to designate permanent sites for summer and winter. It’s not a perfect solution, merely a compromise acknowledging that investing millions of dollars in a luge and bobsled course is stupid economics as long as the luge and bobsled course will be relevant for only a week or two.
Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Ukraine and Sweden haven’t always been the most amicable of neighbors, but when it comes to the 2022 Winter Olympics, the nations are united by the same conviction Boston displayed in renouncing the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Or as folks have been known to say in a rival city down the road: Fuhgeddaboudit.