Sunday, October 5, 2014

Olympic 2022 Preview: Dear God, Save Us All

Oslo, Norway has effectively pulled out of bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics after the Norwegian government refused to foot the stated $5 billion bill the IOC was asking of it.

From this action, the 2022 Winter Olympics, seven and a half years before Opening Ceremony, were doomed to near-certain failure, and the IOC, given their fiery protest of Oslo's withdrawl, appear to know it. Oslo joins a multitude of cities that got cold feet at some point. The withdrawl of Lviv, Ukraine is more than understandable given the circumstances in Ukraine right now, but Krakow, Poland, Stockholm, Sweden, St. Moritz/Davos, Switzerland and Munich, Germany all cited the potential cost in their own reasons for backing off. All would have been at least serviceable hosts, excellent even. But none want to pony up after seeing Sochi brazenly playing out all their worst fears, grossly overspending without a care in the world and leaving buildings half-finished even as the athletes were in town, let alone whatever would happen afterward. Nobody wants to spend like Sochi, and nobody wants to look like Sochi.

Nobody except the only two cities left in the running, and everybody including the IOC knows neither of them is all that great an option: Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Beijing, despite having hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, not only left a lot of white elephants laying around- particularly the main stadium (which they propose to press back into service for the ceremonies along with several of the other 2008 venues)- but Beijing isn't really known as a winter town. A more northern city, Harbin maybe, and then we'd be talking. Beijing? Eeeeeeeehhhhhhhh. Things could get very slushy, and as much as China is able to control politically, they are the world's single biggest contributor to global warming (the United States being second), and they're not going to be able to do much about it if the snow they lay down decides it wants to start melting during competition and eating skiers alive.

And then there's Almaty, which when the IOC sent a team through to assess it, determined could maybe be a reasonably competent host (they hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games and barely missed the shortlist for the 2014 Olympics), or maybe go full-on Borat on everyone. They can't quite tell, which usually means drop the city like a hot rock, but that's a luxury you only really have when you have more than two options. (Oslo had passed with flying colors, of course.)

It is not much more democratic than China, with current president Nursultan Nazarbayev winning his most recent election in 2011 with a not-suspicious-at-all-nosiree 95% of the vote, and a couple months later holding a legislative election in which his party got an equally-not-suspicious-at-all 81% of the vote and two parties that are basically yes-men for the main party got 7% each, which just so happens to be the exact amount required for a party to gain seats in parliament. Most of the candidates critical of the government got straight-up disqualified before the election. The 2011 election was preceded by a Kazakh language test which Nazarbayev of course passed (never mind his downright mangling of the candidates' oath), and which a smattering of no-name opponents passed, including one who didn't even speak Kazakh and one who later admitted to voting for Nazarbayev. All of the actually serious opponents failed the language test.

One of these two places will host the 2022 Winter Olympics for no other reason than all the good hosts dropped out because it got too expensive for them. So someone will host that will get the money from... somewhere. Somewhere that it would probably be a health hazard to inquire about, especially if you happen to be that somewhere.

Of course, there's little to be done about it now than to try and pick between them. If forced to select- and it looks like we now are- I guess I would have to go with Almaty, for two simple reasons, neither of which has much to do with preparedness to host. The first is geography, namely the movement of the Olympic hosting duties. 2018 is set for South Korea; 2020 is set for Japan. A third straight Olympics in the Far East doesn't seem too appealing. But that's a small issue.

Sochi raised the far bigger issue towards the end of the Olympics. The Olympics, as I have repeatedly and incessantly stated, are intended to be an island of peace. It's supposed to be a time when the world stops for a couple weeks and just watches sports together and has a grand old time. Russia didn't even do it themselves. Russian military action in Crimea began the same day as the Closing Ceremony, February 23, with a revolution in Ukraine being sparked several days prior and ending in the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, leading some Ukrainian athletes to leave Sochi early. Moving the same day as the Closing Ceremony, Vladimir Putin cashed in on what Russians, at least, believed to be a successful Olympics regardless of what the rest of the world thought of them. It was also, if meant that way, a thumb to the nose of the IOC, as if to say 'what are you gonna do now, take away the Olympics?'

In your news feed right now, you ought to be seeing the continuing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. By 2022, this immediate matter will certainly have long since been settled one way or another, but it raises the point that China has more than one geopolitical ambition within and beyond its mainland. Hong Kong. Tibet. The Uyghurs. The Siachen Glacier. A set of islands in the East China Sea whose names depend on what country you're asking. Whatever it is North Korea will be up to around that time. It doesn't look like they acted on any of these ambitions in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Olympics, but that doesn't mean China wouldn't do so in 2022.

Kazakhstan, as far as I can tell, has no such current ambitions, nor are they really in a position to act on any they may have. I would personally feel far safer, watching the news in the weeks following, knowing Kazakhstan was the one playing off of Olympic afterglow instead of China.

So... Almaty 2022. I guess. I think.


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