Winter Sports Expertise Lacking in China Choice

Special to the Valley News
Sunday, August 09, 2015
Zurich — Some sports fans cheered when the Chinese capital of Beijing recently won the bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Many sports fans were perplexed. Or maybe upset. Even enraged.

Beijing is hardly known for its winter sports culture. The thought of top ski racers competing there for the highest honor in sports was confusing.

But the International Olympic Committee has membership and regulations that made Beijing a logical choice.

IOC members overwhelmingly have expertise in summer sports. While there are many common issues to organizing a summer and winter Olympics — finances, culture, technical services for athletes — there are a lot of differences as well.

Besides snow, there’s less than a third as many athletes at the Winter Olympics. That means the balance of the factors considered when picking a host is different. The logistics of a Winter Olympics are simpler in some ways, more complex in others.

Do IOC members, with their primarily summer backgrounds, see that? The profile of an average IOC member is not profile of a winter sports fan. Where ski enthusiasts see a lack of snow, the IOC sees what projections for 2025 call China’s $800 billion sports industry.

But it’s one thing to lament the fact that the best winter athletes in the world will be headed to Beijing in 2022. It’s another to try to understand exactly how this decision was made, and what changes could give an actual winter venue a better chance the next time around.

There was only one other candidate city in the running for hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics: Almaty, Kazakhstan. Both bids offered a number of identical problems. Human rights, smog and environmental degradation, to name a few. Both countries are run by oppressive political regimes.

There the similarity of the bids ended. Almaty is a true winter city. Almost all of the winter sports infrastructure already existed, having hosted the 2011 Asian Games and its nearly 1,000 competitors.

(The smoggy Almaty city venue where Lyme Center’s Paddy Caldwell and Dartmouth teammate Ben Saxton competed in Nordic skiing at U23 World Championships this past January would only be used for jumping and Nordic combined had the city won the 2022 bidding. Nordic skiing and biathlon were to be housed at the snowier Asian Games venue just 45 minutes into the mountains.)

In Almaty, everything was close to the city. And the bid was comparatively inexpensive, given recent history -- $4.5 billion, cheaper than any Games since Torino 2006. Russia spent $51 billion to host the Sochi Games two years ago.

Beijing’s bid centered on using stadiums from the 2008 Summer Olympics for indoor sports and building totally new venues 100 miles away for snow sports. Those areas have very little snow and are bone-dry. Snowmaking robs the region’s residents of much-needed water.

There’s also the issue of the distance between venues. And it was impossible to tell the full cost of the Beijing bid because its organizing committee hid key numbers.

With no other cities wishing to host, IOC members were left with Almaty and Beijing. Neither appealed the IOC members who descended upon Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31 for the ballot.

They picked Beijing with 44 of 85 votes, just two votes more than the majority needed to win. One member abstained, a signal of just how unexcited the organization was about its choice.

In the run-up to the vote, delegates hadn’t seen Beijing’s dirt-brown snow sports venues for themselves. They are no longer allowed to visit bid cities as a result of the scandal that dogged bidding for the Salt Lake City Games of 2002.

Now a more than a decade since those Olympics, the IOC still does not trust its members to visit bid cities without taking bribes. Voters could only base their choices on what they heard from the IOC’s own evaluation commission or they’d seen in the media.

The no-visits policy damaged Almaty’s bid. Beijing had the advantage of hosting the 2008 Olympics, meaning that most IOC members had been there. What’s fair in terms of anti-corruption is not always fair for the host cities themselves.

The vote was evidence that seeing a venue provides information that simply reading about it never can. One of the journalists who attended official tours two bid sites by the organizing committee, Robert Livingstone of GamesBids.com, wrote that he was pleasantly surprised on his tour of Almaty. It lived up to what he had assumed were exaggerated claims by the bid committee.

But when he visited Beijing in March, the time of year in which the Paralympic Games will be hosted, there was no snow in the mountains and the ski resorts were already closed for the season. He questioned why IOC members shouldn’t have been allowed in-person experience before making a very important decision.

The evaluation commission came to a similar conclusion. In an informal poll by sports website Inside The Games, eight of the nine commission members said they preferred Almaty.

But they were unable to convince other IOC members with their 138-page report.

The IOC currently has 100 members who vote on Olympic bids. More than half come from countries that have not won a winter Olympic medal in the last four cycles. Many countries that are successful at the winter Games — Austria, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Finland and Slovenia, for example — have no IOC members at all.

Some members are former international athletes; others are longtime administrators of national and international sports federations. A few are businesspeople or royalty with an interest in sport. Of those with a discernible sporting background, just nine worked in winter sport.

For snow sports, the numbers are even more grim. Of the 98 medal events at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, 61 were held on snow: biathlon; Nordic, Alpine and freestyle skiing; and snowboarding. That’s 62 percent.

Of the 100 current IOC members, only Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen and Gian Franco Kasper, the head of the International Ski Federation, come from a ski background. That’s 2 percent.

Those most affected by the negative aspects of the Beijing 2022 bid were not represented at the table at voting time. The skiers and sliders who will be competing far outside Beijing, potentially to empty stadiums on manmade ice atop brown hills, weren’t there.

Only 85 of the 100 members voted in the host city election. Among those excused from Kuala Lumpur were two of the most recently elected IOC members and the only two who competed at the last Games.

Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada’s five-time Olympic hockey player, tweeted the result, linking to an op-ed IOC President Thomas Bach wrote on the eve of the election and referring to it as an “interesting take.” She could have taken part in the election. No reason for her absence was announced.

Bjoerndalen, with 13 medals the most successful athlete in winter Olympic history, also did not attend, citing the need to train for the World Cup campaign. The 41-year-old plans to retire after the upcoming season; World Championships are being held in Oslo this year, and that’s an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

He told Norway’s VG newspaper that he had discussed his absence with Bach and given his input to the executive committee. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate both could not attend the session and vote. By missing the session, both lost an opportunity to address IOC members about their unique experiences.

Sochi’s price tag is something the IOC does not want to repeat. It’s part of the reason that Beijing and Almaty were the only two cities to bid for 2022: Other potential hosts started the bid process, but changed their minds. The IOC wants to leave Sochi in the rearview mirror.

Kazakhstan can afford the Winter Olympics, even at $4.5 billion.

The country has the largest economy in central Asia and is the third-largest non-OPEC supplier of energy to the European Union. Like Norway, Kazakhstan is building a sovereign wealth fund to keep its profits. A carbon-rich dictatorship can handle an Olympic expense. Membership in the top-ten GDPs in the world is not a prerequisite for playing host.

When IOC members talked about China’s economy being its strength, they were referencing the nation’s consumer market … and accessing it.

The 60 percent of IOC members who come from countries with no recent winter Olympic medals might not have been able to appreciate the extent to which skiers and snowboarders prefer real snow to the manufactured stuff.

Or, perhaps more importantly to the IOC, they didn’t understand the notion of how competitions in a real mountain atmosphere are nicer to watch on television. Or how, in some disciplines, an abundance of natural snow is much safer for competition than a combination of manmade slush and salted-up ice.

Instead, maybe the lucrative marketing opportunities seemed more important. Until the IOC includes more winter sports representation in its membership and reinstates official visits to potential host cities, another decision like this one could happen again in four years.

Chelsea Little is a Lyme native and former member of the Dartmouth College cross country ski team. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Zurich. Little also writes for FasterSkier.com.