SOCHI, RUSSIA – The sheer cost, size and scale of the Sochi Olympics has outstripped anything done before. The question for future Winter Games is clear: Can anyone — should anyone — try to top that?
Sochi has showcased President Vladimir Putin’s grand project, using the Olympics to reshape the entire Black Sea resort region, with brand new facilities and infrastructure built from scratch.
The huge financial investment, massive security apparatus and litany of logistical issues has thrown up major challenges to potential future Winter Olympic host cities.
Can they afford it? Will the public support it? Should the games keep going to emerging and developing countries or return to more traditional winter sports nations? Will the weather be cold enough?
Under new President Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee is weighing changes to the bidding process that would cut down on the costs for applicant and host cities. “The idea that perhaps a more traditional country would produce a smaller scale games with a different legacy, it’s entirely possible,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.
The fact is, potential host cities have been spooked by the $51 billion price tag associated with Sochi. Most of that cash isn’t for the games themselves; it’s for roads, railways, hotels and other long-term regeneration projects.
Still, the international mood has shifted. Proposed bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics from Munich and St. Moritz-Davos were rejected last year by voters in Germany and Switzerland because of financial and environmental concerns. Stockholm recently pulled out of the 2022 race after Swedish politicians said the costs were too high.
“A lot of cities have found this a little scary, that so much money has to be invested,” senior Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said. “People in western Europe say this is too much for us, too much investment, too difficult to run. We need to get more cities interested. It’s a question of cost — as little as possible.”
The next Winter Games will be held in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Like Sochi, it’s a new destination, the first Winter Olympics in Korea, and a city with which many in the world are unfamiliar. Unlike Sochi, Pyeongchang already has many existing facilities in place. The infrastructure budget is a modest $7 billion.
“We need to always give a chance to developing winter sports nations to develop what they need to do,” Adams says. “We can’t always just go to countries where they’ve got everything already. That wouldn’t help to spread the games and it wouldn’t be fair, either.”
Next to be decided is the site of the 2022 Games. A low-key bidding campaign has been waged behind the scenes in Sochi among the five candidate cities: Almaty, Kazakhstan; Beijing; Krakow, Poland; Lviv, Ukraine; and Oslo, Norway.
The IOC executive board will cut the field to a short list of finalists in early July. The full IOC will select the winner on July 31, 2015, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, would seem a longshot after the IOC awarded two consecutive games to Asia — Pyeongchang for 2018 and Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Games.
It would seem impossible for Lviv to be able to overcome the political crisis and unrest in Ukraine.
Krakow is an interesting option at the heart of Europe, but its plans for holding some ski events across the border in Slovakia pose tricky logistical issues.
That could leave Oslo and Almaty as the top contenders.
Lurking in the background is the impact of climate change, an issue given new urgency by the balmy weather that prevailed through much of the Sochi Games. Temperatures have reached 17 degrees Celsius, causing concern for snow conditions.
Scientists say rising temperatures could put the Winter Games at risk in the not-too-distant future.
“As the century unfolds, northern nations will have less and less certainty that they will have enough snow to host a Winter Olympics,” says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist from the University of Victoria in Canada.
Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer says it’s likely enough snow will remain in some places through the rest of the 21st century to hold some Olympic competition.
“But the venues might be radically different — a lot less accessible and less amenable to host the kind of huge, circuslike event we hold today,” Oppenheimer said.