Brunt: Why they won’t put a ring on it

Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Oslo is the latest city to withdraw its bid for the 2022 Games, which says a lot about the Olympics these days.

A little more than 20 years ago, Norway staged the most perfect Olympics imaginable in a modern, cynical world.

Lillehammer is a tiny jewel of a place, but it wasn’t just that. Nice scenery is pretty much a given when it comes to the Games of ice and snow. What resonated more for those of us lucky enough to have been there was a pure, organic connection between sport and landscape and life, enough that it chipped away at all of the well-earned skepticism surrounding the International Olympic Committee and the belief system/cash cow it controls.

Norwegians climbed off the train and strapped on cross-country skis before making the trek to the woods to watch the races. Grandmothers ran errands with little kicksleds, sliding down the town’s hilly streets. Ski jumping, a national passion, drew a crowd that acted like it was watching the Super Bowl. And when Johann Olav Koss was on the speedskating oval, time stood still. Perhaps the last sports hero really worthy of the title, Koss raced to three gold medals. The last was in the 10,000 metres, and when he won, there were few dry eyes in town—and that wasn’t just the Norwegians.

All of those fond memories welled up again when it was announced that Norway would not be pursuing the 2022 Winter Olympics for Oslo. Every poll had suggested that the people who love those sports more than anyone else, who had been the ideal hosts for the world, weren’t interested in doing it again. The final straw came when the current government was unwilling and/or unable to provide the IOC with the necessary financial guarantees.

That’s what you call an indictment.

Now only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, remain in the 2022 sweepstakes (a long list of cities, including Munich, St. Moritz, Stockholm and Krakow had already dropped out). The thing those two countries have in common is that no one is going to be holding a referendum to find out what the people want, no one is going to tolerate an open and democratic debate about the costs and benefits of hosting the Games, and in the interest of image-polishing (Kazakhstan, which you can read all about at Human Rights Watch, has invested heavily in sponsorship in cycling and Formula 1 for the same reason), those in charge will be more than happy to sign a blank cheque and hand it over to the IOC.

Finally, it appears that this game is played out. All of those years of countries battling each other for the right to host the Games, promising ever more elaborate facilities, are done but for an unaccountable few.

It was never worth it on a bottom-line basis, but it was always worth it for other reasons, because during those 17 days, the host (and the political leaders of the host) could bask in the glow, and the bill—even if astronomical—could be justified in terms of infrastructure and national pride and the celebration of all that was right with sport. So what changed?

Athens, which came pretty close to bankrupting an entire nation and left behind the rotting shells of Olympic facilities already useless and abandoned just 10 years after the torch was extinguished.

Beijing, which raised the bar as to just how elaborate and expensive a Summer Games could be minus any kind of checks and balances.

Sochi, which took the previously semi-modest Winter Games and turned them into a $51-billion Potemkin village extravaganza, right on the eve of the Ukraine invasion.

It would appear that most of the rest of the world looked at those examples of waste and excess and decided that it didn’t want to host this party anymore. Leave it to the folks for whom price is no object. Leave it to those who are willing to pay anything for political cover.

And that doesn’t just go for the Olympics. The World Cup might seem immune right now, thanks to Russia (cough) and Qatar (cough, cough) anteing up for the next two, and thanks to soccer’s place as most of the planet’s singular sports passion. FIFA’s big show still seems untouchable. But soon enough someone is going to take a look at those underused state-of-the-art stadiums in South Africa and Brazil and wonder if it’s really worth the massive investment.

That’s the IOC’s loss, and it will be FIFA’s loss. Our loss, though, is how it might have been in Norway, how it might have once again restored our faith in sport as part of the connective tissue between life and culture and climate and history, how it might have been like a purifying dip in a cold northern stream.

Perhaps it’s unfair, but here’s betting Almaty or Beijing won’t quite deliver that.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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