The Lasting Legacy | Why Does Nobody Want to Host the Winter Olympics Anymore?
We headed to Kvitfjell, a town built on Olympic history, to ask about the future of the Games.
Nobody wants to host the Olympic Games anymore. Or so it was said last year after Beijing were named as the host city for the 2022 winter edition. There weren’t many other options.
The IOC were left to choose from either Almaty in Kazakhstan or the Chinese capital after Munich, Krakow, Stockholm and St. Moritz in Switzerland all pulled out, citing the high costs, security demands and low public backing. Lviv in Ukraine was then forced to pull out due to civil unrest in Ukraine, leaving just the two aforementioned candidates and the new favourite Oslo, the Norwegian capital.
Then Oslo pulled out as well. Public opinion turned against the IOC and the Norwegians voted against the proposal to bid for the Winter Games.
I find this last withdrawal particularly interesting as I wade through waist-height powder in Kvitfjell - a splendid Norwegian ski resort which wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for the Winter Olympics held an hour down the road in Lillehammer in 1994.
The resort hosted the men and women’s alpine speed events - the Super G and downhill - 24 years ago and has been a stop on the FIS Ski World Cup every year since, welcoming anywhere from 8-10,000 people annually for that race weekend alone.
“It was an architect who saw the potential of Kvitfjell back in ‘89," Odd Stensrud tells me. Odd is CEO of Alpinco, the company who manage Kvitfjell and sister resort Hafjell, which while not founded specifically for the Winter Olympics, saw a huge rise in status because of it.
“The decision to build Kvitfjell was only made because they needed a speed arena for the Olympics. Before that, there was nothing here. Just some farms. The whole mountain side was woods. Construction started in 1990."
The Olympic downhill run in Kvitfjell is devilishly steep, though when we ride it it’s padded out with powder. The resort crew might have done their best to piste the slope in the morning but the snow has been falling so heavily since then that they may as well have gone back to bed or clipped into a pair of skis themselves.
The Olympiabakken, as its known is Norway’s longest black run - nearly three kilometres from top to bottom - and when you wake up the next morning your legs can tell. The thought of skiing down it at the 80mph (128km/h) Olympic standard is enough to send shivers through a thermal-layered spine.
“My first job here was finishing the construction work on the lifts," Odd tells me. “At that time there was just three lifts and two slopes in Kvitfjell."
There’s certainly no lack of runs now. It’s not the biggest resort in the world with 34km of pistes, but the snow is as reliable as you’ll get in Norway - by next season they hope to have 180 skiable winter days - and we spend most of our time nipping through the fresh powder outside the guidelines.
One man who will never forget the early days of the resort is American skier Tommy Moe. He won the Olympic downhill gold in Kvitfjell in 1994 and the silver in Super G, missing out on a second gold medal by just 0.08 seconds.
“Local communities further north are traditionally farming communities. There isn’t much other work. Hafjell and Kvitfjell are now the biggest employers for the whole area"
“There were just a few runs besides the downhill track," Tommy remembers. He’s done a lot of skiing since, racing professionally until 1998 before retiring to open the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a luxury heli-ski resort in Alaska.
"When I competed there we stayed on the mountain near the top and could ski right out the door. I remember it was very beautiful terrain with nice forests and good snow."
Some things never change.
"50,000 people were there for the Super G and 30,000 for the Downhill. After the Super G on the 17th of February, they sang me me ‘Happy Birthday’. It was awesome to have that many spectators. I know they had over 100,000 for Nordic Events. I found out after Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea were there. It was definitely the best Olympics I competed in, compared to Albertville' 92 and Nagano '98."
Some tourists were put off travelling to Kvitfjell after the Olympics by the perception that the skiing in the resort was too advanced, but since opening the tamer west side of the mountain it has become increasingly popular with families, and further lifts opened this year with that in mind.
As you might expect though, Tommy wasn't overly daunted by the downhill course.
“It was really fun to race - not the most difficult track, but it had a nice rhythm and flow. The top section is very technical with big turns and steep drops, the middle section had nice jumps and sweet gliding turns. The bottom was technical again with some big roundhouse turns and a big jump. One minute 45 seconds of serious fun."
Or roughly double that if you're a normal human being like ourselves.
"My fondest memory was waking up the next day after the downhill and thinking it was a dream," he recalls, "until I went over to the windowsill and the gold medal was there."
130,000 commercial guest nights each year now end with views of the same beautiful scenery Tommy woke up to back in '94 in Kvitfjell - minus the gold medal of course. The resort employs 300 people during winter and 50 year round, nearly all of whom are local. It’s planning to expand accommodation options in the coming years to keep up with demand. And it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Winter Olympics.
Odd Stensrud is the first to admit: “the Olympics were a big boost for everyone in the local area. Local communities further north are traditionally farming communities and there isn't much other work. Hafjell and Kvitfjell are now the biggest employers for the whole area."
So why did Norway, a country which already has much of the infrastructure needed to host the Winter Olympic Games - “all the ice halls and arenas from 1994 are still used today," says Odd - withdraw from the running for 2022?
"It was mostly the opinion of the people," says Odd, who needless to say would have been delighted to see the Olympic downhill races return to Kvitfjell, as they would have done had the Oslo 2022 bid been successful.
“In the end it was the people in Norway who really turned it down, but [public opinion] was also the same before 1994"
“The concept was good. It could've been more local than the average Olympics. In the end the people turned it down, but [public opinion] was also the same before 1994. It was only when we built the arenas and everyone came that people’s opinions changed. This time social media and the media turned people around before the decision was made.
“I think the Norwegian people also look at the members of IOC as a little bit high end. The image of the IOC needs to change. And then of course there was the big cost of Sochi."
While originally budgeted at $12 billion US dollars, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi ended up costing $51 billion, making it the most expensive Olympics in history. Many of the bids which withdrew from the process this time around pointed to that figure in their exit notes.
But the story of Kvitfjell is one that clashes with the mainstream script on Olympic legacy - with the idea that money pumped into a mega event like the Olympics struggles to live past the event, and that purpose-built sports arenas are fated to end up abandoned.
Gerhard Heiberg of the Norwegian International Olympic Committee even went as far as saying: "everybody without exception thinks Lillehammer was a success for the country, the IOC and the world."
Of course, if people are left behind to use purpose-built arenas after the games, then there’s a much higher chance of a positive legacy. Norway has a strong culture of winter sports, and as such all of the arenas built for the Lillehammer games are still used.
This will not be the case after the South Korea Games in Pyeongchang. The downhill track for Pyeongchang, the same event which the entire resort of Kvitfjell was built around in '94, is set to be demolished after the 2018 Games.
A plan to have the 10,000-seater Gangneung Hockey Centre house a regular hockey team has been abandoned, leading to rumours, which have since been denied, that the centre might be turned into a “giant seafood freezer". The bobsleigh track, ski jump hill, biathlon and cross-country venues are being purpose-built despite the fact that there is little interest in these sports in South Korea. It’s not unimaginable that the next time they’ll see action will be in a Buzzfeed article in 10 years time entitled: “37½ Photographs from the Abandoned Venues of the 2018 Winter Olympics".
The Olympics, the global games, are also holding all three of their next events in Eastern Asia - 2018 (Pyeongchang), 2020 (Tokyo) and 2022 (Beijing) - and that is at least partly down to a lack of bids from and lack of appetite for the Olympic Games in Europe.
Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford's Business School, has written extensively on the lure of ‘mega games’. He believes the “seeds of destruction" were planted as far back as the Montreal Summer Games in 1976, and that while they begin with cost, that is not where they end.
“Montreal as a city didn’t finish paying for the Olympic Games until 2006," he says. “It took 30 years for the city to pay for it, and that was local taxpayers money. I think that got people to start asking questions about the financial viability and legitimacy of hosting the games."
He believes the declining European interest in hosting the Olympics is bound up in broader global, economic and geopolitical shifts.
“It is obviously about costs but also about the Olympics being used for political purposes. There were issues around corruption. The IOC and mega sports events around the world were being called into question, and we had financial austerity hitting, particularly in Europe.
“Economically the balance of power seems to be shifting from North America and Europe towards Asia and at the same time what you have is the movement of events towards these countries"
“It’s a whole host of things happening at the same time. Economically the balance of power seems to be shifting from North America and Europe towards Asia - particularly Eastern Asia - and at the same time what you have is the movement of events towards these countries in Asia because they’re prepared to throw resources at them for political purposes."
From that standing, Professor Chadwick says, it’s only natural that the next three Games are taking place in Eastern Asia.
“The cost issue is one thing but the additional dimension is that rather than countries deciding that they’re going to do this and that they don’t care what people will say, they’re increasingly putting these decisions to a democratic vote and in Europe, Europeans are voting against them.
“This stands in stark contrast to Asia. If you think about the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, there is never going to be a democratic vote about whether or not those should be held. Countries like China, to a certain extent Korea, and countries like Kazakhstan and Russia not only have a less democratic approach to making such decisions, they have the money to pay for them.
“Sochi was just outrageous. That was a political project designed to cement Putin’s image at home and project a particular image overseas and I think that Beijing 2008 was very much consistent with that, albeit it wasn’t so presidential in the way that it was executed. I expect Beijing 2022 will be used in the same way."
Despite this global progression, which could lead the Olympics even further into morally grey areas, Chadwick does think the Winter Games in Beijing could be a sustainable project, in terms of venue usage at least - particularly because of this shift in global economics.
“What the Chinese are very keen to do is to create facilities that will make China a tourism destination," he says. “It wants people to go to China in the winter, and one of the ways you do that is by creating ski resorts. There’s a massive growth in the Chinese middle classes right now and they love skiing. So effectively what China is doing is meeting its own domestic demand for winter sports whilst also catering for broader international demand."
This last note leaves Beijing 2022 comparable to Lillehammer 1994. Norway too used the Winter Olympics to create sustainable resorts - like Kvitfjell.
“If Lillehammer didn't have the Olympics in ‘94 then activity north of Lillehammer would have been very slow," admits Odd Stensrud.
The Lillehammer Games wasn't immune from financial issues, but the legacy that’s been left is very much existent. So existent that we’ve been sleeping in it in Kvitfjell. We’ve been skiing it - down the slope where Tommy Moe pipped home favourite Kjetil André Aamodt to the gold by 0.04 seconds in the downhill, and through forests where powder has been piling so high that it took a full 10 minutes to find a dropped iPhone just off the piste.
For his part, Tommy adds: “They keep having the Winter Olympics in obscure countries rather than classic European or North American venues.
"Some of the past host countries already have everything built and could easily do it again, like Salt Lake, Calgary, Austria and even Lillehammer."
Is the positive legacy of the Lillehammer Olympics, 24 years ago, because it was the last small ‘classic' snow town to actually host the Games? Is it because Norway is a country with a culture and history of winter sports? Or is it because there was an appetite for the Games when they did arrive, and that the venues were put to good use afterwards?
If yes to the latter, it will be interesting to see the perhaps contrasting legacies that beckon from Pyeongchang, where the IOC have already warned of white elephants and poor ticket sales, and from Beijing. 78 new ski resorts opened in China in 2016 alone, and consultant Benny Wu was quoted in The Economist as saying: “it could grow at this rate for another 15-20 years".
After the financial mess of Sochi evidently put a lot of cities off hosting the Games and turned public opinion against the IOC, the relative prudency of the Korean Games, and a strong legacy from Beijing, could be exactly what is needed to reboot the perception of the costs and rewards of hosting such an event. The Pyeongchang Games are expected to cost almost $40 billion less than the Games in Sochi.
The Winter Olympics have lost momentum, particularly in their historic home of Europe. European appetite for the games may even be dependent on the improvement of everyday living conditions in potential host cities. After all you're less likely to vote to spend millions on any kind of mega event when you're being forced to keep your own purse strings extra tight at home.
But if a resort like Kvitfjell is the resulting legacy when the Games do turn out right - improved access to nature, jobs for locals, a stunning ski resort with room to grow - then surely it’s worth the time, thought and patience to try and make it work?
Here’s hoping that the people of Pyeongchang decide that ski jumping and bobsleigh might be a laugh after all. The benefits of the 1994 Winter Olympics become more apparent with every snowflake that falls on Kvitfjell, and there’s a whole lot of snowflakes in Kvitfjell this winter.
Do It Yourself:
We flew into Oslo airport on KLM airlines (courtesy of Visit Norway) and took the rain from Oslo to Ringebu. The train costs NOK 249 one way and takes two hours 25 minutes, with six daily departures in both directions. From there, Kvitfjell is a 20 minute drive or taxi costing NOK 350.
We stayed as guests of the ski-in, ski-out Gudbrandsgard Hotel for four nights.
We hired gear from Sport 1 Kvitfjell