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20 November 2014

Where now for the Winter Olympics?

Why have all but two of the potential candidates for the 2022 Winter Olympics pulled out? Is this the beginning of a new era in which the only countries willing to stage the games are autocratic countries with the necessary vanity, decisiveness and money? And if so, what's the skiing like there?

Anyone following the bidding process to host the 2022 Winter Olympics has good reason to feel confused. Here is how the process is meant to work: countries submit bids, eagerly hoping that the International Olympic Committee will deem their facilities worthy of official 'candidate city' status.Then follows more elation as two or three make the shortlist, with despondence among those rejected. And finally one delighted winner is announced as the host of the games.
This time, the selection process has been turned on its head, as all but two of the bidders have eliminated themselves - the IOC has yet to make a single decision to reject any candidate city. So what is going on?
The Ski Club's Ski+board magazine asked three writers familiar with the countries or resorts in question to shed some light on the would-be venues.

Skiing in Sweden

BID WITHDRAWN: One resort too far in Sweden

By Colin Nicholson

Sandwiched between Norway and Finland, which each attract thousands of British skiers a year, Sweden barely registers as a ski destination in the UK. So when the ski resort of Åre staged the World Championships in 2007, it piqued interest.

Good facilities and midnight sun

The resort, which has existed for 100 years, would have been well capable of hosting Olympic Alpine events. With its highest run at 1,270m (4,200ft) it has the greater vertical drop in the Nordic countries and caters for many levels of skier. A nice legacy of 2007 is that a series of tunnels, built for spectators, have been turned into pistes under the old race courses. This means beginners and nervous intermediates can pass under the fastest black runs to explore cosier, more romantic trails, zig-zagging through the trees.
"But isn't it dark? Isn't it cold?" everyone asks. Of course, but in January it is beautiful to watch the spectacular crimson sunrises-cum-sunsets over the Åresjon lake, and many pistes are floodlit. By the end of the season in May, it scarcely gets dark at night.
On the slopes there are little huts in the woods, with open fires crackling outside, offering shelter when the wind picks up. And the wind can close the lifts above the treeline. Or you can take the quaint rack railway dating from 105 years ago up to a popular apres-ski spot on the slopes.

But they're overstretched already

So would Åre and Stockholm be ideally placed to host an Olympic party like no other? Well, no. They are eight hours apart, or 12 hours by train, making it almost easier for Britons to reach Åre than most Swedes. On this occasion Åre's ambitious owner, Skistar, which is rebuilding Andermatt in Switzerland, overstretched itself in pushing a bid with Stockholm.


Skiing in Ukraine

BID WITHDRAWN: The misplaced optimism of Ukraine

By Andreas Hofer

Remarkable as it may seem, the last contender to drop its 2022 bid before the shortlist was announced was Ukraine. But we should not applaud this pluckiness.
When Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's prime minister, withdrew Lviv's candidacy for the 2022 Olympics on June 30 he tried to sound upbeat: "We will bid for 2026..."

Absurdly optimistic - corruption and inequality

Even before the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the ensuing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Lviv's bid had looked absurdly optimistic. The country was bust, creditors queued for the exit and Russia had started to demand upfront payment for its gas deliveries. Corrupt politicians and the country's moneyed elite cared little about their folk since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, leaving people in the street selling handfuls of cucumbers or Chinese trainers, while those who represented them drove Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Even if we would love to see the Ukraine as the oppressed underdog, bullied by its big brother Russia, it is still is a country rooted in cynicism and Communistic mismanagement.

Tradition and history

And yet it is a region rich in tradition and history. Lviv, the de facto capital of Western Ukraine and proposed Olympic host, still has the distinctive flair of an Austro-Hungarian provincial town. Its 19th Century apartment buildings, art nouveau facades, majestic opera, and narrow, cobbled streets carry the imperial history of its past as the most northeasterly city of the Hapsburg empire until 1918, even if the tram tracks have been out of use for a century.

But no snowsure mountains

As a regular visitor to Lviv for more than two decades and an avid skier, you might expect me to wax lyrical about the skiing the would-be Winter Olympic host has to offer. But I cannot. Ukraine has, alas, no snowsure mountains to speak of. Some on the Crimean peninsula are quite out of reach. Most, admittedly, are safely in the west, but even then Ukraine's highest peak, Howerla Mountain, south of Lviv, stands at just 2,061m. These hills are the mere tailpiece of the Carpathians, which are impressive mountains in Bulgaria. Ukraine, therefore, has only a handful of tiny, poorly connected ski resorts.
Magura, the resort nearest to the planned Olympic site of 'Borzhava', has so far only two lifts reaching from 600m to 850m altitude. Even Bukovel, Ukraine's most developed ski resort with 14 fairly modern ski lifts, has a base elevation of only 900m above sea level, and its highest drop-off is at 1370m. The Ukrainian Carpathians are so low they lack snow already. In 2011-12, a fantastic season in Bulgaria, Bukovel could open only for a short period.
It does seem that the Olympics will more and more depend on vanity investments by dictatorial regimes, yet the Ukraine was too quick off the mark in its hope that its lack of alpine facilities could be ignored entirely. It was never a serious contender to stage an alpine downhill race. If Lviv had hoped to stage a viable bid then perhaps it, rather than Krakow, should have partnered with Slovakia, where the skiing is marvellous and where those Ukrainians who can afford such a luxury go anyway for their winter holidays.

Skiing in Sweden

BID WITHDRAWN: But of all of the former communist bidders, Slovakia was the best

By Andreas Hofer

The joint bid between the Polish city of Krakow and well-established resorts in the Tatras range puts the environmental and financial hubris of others to shame.
Unlike Ukraine's bid, and unlike Sochi, Putin's over-ambitious green-field project, no large scale investment would have been needed in the Tatras Mountains for Slovakia to host the 2022 Winter Olympics with Krakow.

No large-scale investment necessary

Jasna, the proposed scene for alpine competitions, has the potential to attract many more British skiers, with flights to nearby Poprad starting this season. And in the past few years millionaires Ivan Jakabovic and Patrik Tkac have invested lavishly in a range of four- and five-star hotels, building 26 ski lifts and ensuring ski rentals and restaurants are well stocked.

But the Slovakia/Poland bid was withdrawn

However good an option the Krakow/Tatras bid appeared, they pulled out earlier this year following a referendum held in Krakow. The people voted against hosting the games, put off by the 50 billion dollars that Russia spent on the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Find out what skiing in the Tatras is like in the author's blog. Expect plum brandy, pristene wildernesses, and bears.

Skiing in Oslo

BID WITHDRAWN: Oslo, Norway, ticked all the boxes, bar one

By Colin Nicholson

If the Stockholm-Åre bid seemed over-ambitious because of their distance apart, the same cannot be said of Oslo and its ski areas, where a 20-minute tram ride takes you from the city centre to the resort of Oslo Vinterpark, with its 11 lifts serving 18 runs which cater for all abilities.
When I was there, two local kids saw me eyeing the skiercross track and laid down the gauntlet. So I found myself gripping the rails of the starting gate like so many Olympians I have watched. Of course my rivals were far better than me, but were sporting enough to wait at the bottom to shake my hand.
A stone's throw away is where the Olympic cross-country events would have been held in the hundreds of kilometres of trails through the woods overlooking Oslo's fjord, in the shadow of Oslo's impressive new ski jump. The main alpine skiing events, however, would have been held at Lillehammer, site of the 1994 games and just two hours by train - less from Oslo's Gardermoen airport. The town has five alpine ski areas covered by one pass. Hafjell and Kvitfjell are the biggest, Gålå, Skeikampen and Sjusjøen are three more. You can also try the bobsleigh on the track dating from when the 1994 Winter Olympics were held in Lillehammer.
Would Oslo have been an ideal host for the Winter Olympics? Yes. Rich enough to cope with inevitable extra costs, Oslo ticked all but one of the boxes when it came to meeting the IOC's benchmarks, whereas Beijing missed three and Almaty nine, both crucially failing to meet the grade on environment and meteorology. And the benchmark Oslo missed? Government and political support - a criterion that both China and Kazakhstan passed comfortably...

Skiing in Sweden

BID PENDING: The Chinese love skiing, but do they take it seriously enough?

By Arnie Wilson

Skiing in China is taking off among recreational skiers, but in a population that sees falling over as half the fun, will they ever embrace competitive winter sports?
It is a rare privilege to have witnessed the growth of skiing from infancy to huge popularity, particularly in a country as vast as China. Although it is in China that some of the most ancient skis have been discovered, dating back to 2,500 BC, when they were used to help Chinese peasants fish, hunt, farm and even do battle, skiing has only recently caught on.

Snow spread on the pistes by hand, in some areas

China now has as many as 350 ski areas, but only 20 approach Western standards. Although winters in China are severe, they can also be dry, so snowfall is not as bountiful as you might imagine. In some areas, locals are still employed to move by hand snow 'harvested' from fields and meadows to top up the pistes - a primitive, time-consuming attempt to copy a job that we have only ever seen done by snowcats.
Many of the resorts are small, popular, beginner areas, and most are in the northerly province of Heilongjiang, where the distinctly chilly regional capital Harbin is known as the 'Ice City'. It is this remote region, not far from the Russian border, which offers the best skiing. But its bid to be a candidate city for the 2010 Winter Olympics failed, as did its bid to host the 2012 Winter Youth Olympics.
For 2022, it is Beijing's turn, along with the much more accessible mountainous region of Zhangjiakou and its ski areas. Here, two significant mountains, Yan and the towering Taihang, meet the vast grasslands and meandering Sangyang River at Beijing's northern door beyond the Great Wall. Rising up between the Mongolian Plateau and the North China Plain, these high mountains and deep valleys have been a natural military screen for Beijing for centuries.
I first visited China's ski areas in 2001, when I spent a fortnight skiing in three regions. This was the winter when skiing took off and the first snowdome opened in Beijing. During our visit to Zhangjiakou, we were rewarded with a hilarious and warm-hearted dinner with the local mayor, party chairman and party secretary, who spoke not a word of English between them. The services of two schoolteachers were enlisted, and they spoke just enough English to translate the various toasts flying in our direction.
"The mayor wishes to drink a toast to new friends," came the cry. Hardly had we had a chance to stab our chopsticks into a helping of chicken gizzard, pit-of-stomach or heart-pipe than we were alerted that the chairman wished to drink a toast to the "old friends", to which we had by now been promoted.
Back then, the ski area was picturesque in a bizarre sort of way: accommodation varied from warm but basic cubicles with ensuite holes in the ground to colourful Mongolian yurts. The architecture was a mish-mash of flint-walled buildings, medieval-looking street lamps and the odd castle-style folly, giving it the appearance of a film studio between movies. As there was only enough snow for one lift to open, a truck took us much higher up the mountain where there was sufficient snow to go off-piste.

Skiing is all about falling over and laughing

The Chinese see skiing as a great leveller. One official we met said: "On slopes, status is not shown by dress. Age and gender are also wrapped in heavy clothing. Everyone is equal on slopes. High-ranking officials can fall, making their subordinates laugh. The tension in relationships is gone with laughter."
Back then, just six-per-cent of Chinese skiers had their own skiwear, some skiing in leather jackets and fur coats. Today, skiing is becoming big business. There are an estimated five million Chinese skiers and for the first time in the winter of 2012-13 the number of skier visits topped the ten million mark, compared to fewer than a million on my 2001 visit. But one thing hasn't changed. The Chinese still see skiing as entertainment, rather than a sport to be perfected with practice. So the smiles of collapsing officials and subordinates are as wide as they were 13 years ago.
As for China staging the 2022 Winter Olympics, well, after Sochi last winter and Pyeongchang in 2018 anything can happen. But wouldn't it be nice for the games to return to Europe after so long in distant lands? After all, the last time they were in Europe was in Italy in 2006, and before that Norway, back in 1994.

Skiing in Kazakhstan

BID PENDING: Kazakhstan has mountains, but the 'Borat' factor rules

By Andreas Hofer

Kazakhstan has beautiful off-piste skiing, but the lengths its lifelong ruler will go to in order to the get the games puts Sacha Baron Cohen's character in the shade.
When in 1991 Kazakhstan emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union as an independent state, most people knew so little about the country that it took Borat - the alter-ego of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen - to plant this huge nation in our minds.
It is more than ten times the size of the UK, yet who knew that the Soviet Union flew into space from this country, tested hundreds of atom bombs in its steppes and extracted vast quantities of oil and metal from its sands? And who could imagine this sparsely populated land - roamed since ancient times by Mongolian nomads and eagle hunters - as a skiing nation?

State-of-the-art ski lifts, luxury shopping, and Prince Harry

In fact, it was in Kazakhstan that the first ski lifts in the Soviet Union were built, while Stalin was still in power. Until the 1960s it was the only place in the Soviet Union where alpine skiers could go - if the Communist Party let them. Its vast mountains have countless peaks over 4,000m, forming a natural border with Kyrgyzstan in the south and China in the east. And the Ile Alatau and Kunggoj Alatoo ranges, part of the Tien Shan or Celestial Mountains, are a bus stop away from the former capital, Almaty, still Kazakhstan's biggest city.
Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a keen skier, and his cronies have invested a fortune in the revival of the old ski resorts of Ak-Bulak and Shymbulak, with state of-the-art ski lifts, fancy hotels and luxury shopping. No wonder, then, that Prince Harry and his girlfriend came skiing here last season: good snow, no queues and really, really first-class security. So what is wrong with Almaty's bid to host the Olympics?
The Alpine skiing venues, planned as an extension of Shymbulak and in new resorts that are already in construction, are all in a national park of rare beauty: it is home to golden eagles and gazelles and is the haunt of the elusive snow leopard.
I have skied in these mountain ranges, albeit neither in the resorts, nor as a heli-skier, but ski touring in this pristine wilderness, looking down on the vast, seemingly endless mountain-lake Ysyk-Kul. It was the president himself who decreed the formation of this national park in 1996. He has now changed his mind. What the president gives, the president takes. If he can build a new capital, Astana, he can certainly alter the boundaries of a park a little. 'Elected' president for life, he does bear an uncanny resemblance to Borat.

What does the future hold? Democratic countries go cool on the Olympics

It seems we may have to live with the fact that the future host of the Winter Olympics will increasingly be those autocratic regimes that have the vanity, decisiveness and the money to stage the games. We may not like it, but look at Poland, Sweden and Switzerland: all forced by their electorate to abandon any Olympic ambitions.
Citizens in democratic countries are no longer willing to see their hard-earned taxes spent by eager politicians on loss-making enterprises, to have their cities clogged up for weeks and to accept a legacy of empty, useless buildings.
My bet is that Kazakhstan will be declared the winner by the International Olympic Committee next year. Unlike Ukraine, its mainly Turkic-speaking population remains unmolested by Russia, despite the country's oil riches and sizable Russian-speaking minority. Let us hope it stays that way until 2022.

Olympic bids that have withdrawn themselves
Olympic candidates for the 2022 Winter Olympics

This article appeared in Ski+board magazine, written by Colin Nicholson, Andreas Hofer and Arnie Wilson

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