Column: With 2022 games, IOC turns magic into mush

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Posted: Oct 02, 2014 1:57 PM
Column: With 2022 games, IOC turns magic into mush

PARIS (AP) — How do you turn one of sport's most magical events into unappealing mush? Let the International Olympic Committee manage it.

After Norway dropped out of the running this week, the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics will be either China or Kazakhstan, eye-wateringly awful choices. Both have authoritarian governments that muzzle critics, poor records on human rights and noxious air pollution, which is no fun if you're an athlete.

Nor, for that matter, is trying to ski in places with next-to-no snow — a problem with China's proposed alpine skiing venue north of Beijing.

But they have money. And they can push through an Olympics without worrying too much about what citizens really think about the whole extravaganza, cost, disruption and environmental damage. That combination of open coffers and closed mouths makes them fine as bedfellows for the IOC.

"Two very interesting candidatures with a very diverse approach" is how IOC President Thomas Bach described them on Thursday.

But the truth is that it's a terrible black eye for the IOC that it couldn't get a democracy to buy into the 2022 games and pick up the tab. Somewhere, say, like Norway, Switzerland or Germany, countries that actually have long-established winter sports venues and traditions. Given the choice, voters and elected leaders there said, 'No.'

So, instead, the games of 2022 will be like those of 2008 in Beijing and 2014 in Sochi, Russia: The only way to enjoy them will be by switching off our moral compass.

Athletes, through no fault of their own, will again be used as window-dressing by strong-arm presidents. And Bach will shake their hands and smile. But, hey, who knows: Perhaps the jailers of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and of Kazakhstan opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov will declare their own Olympic truce and let prisoners watch a bit of figure skating on jailhouse television?

Selling the Olympics should be a slam-dunk. Rosy-cheeked, sculpted athletes in the prime of life doing eye-popping things on skis, skates and sleds. What's not to like? They are not the problem; the circus that the IOC has built around them and itself is. Too expensive, too demanding, too insensitive, too self-important. The list of requirements that the IOC now expects of its hosts has grown to thousands of pages, down to the smallest and pettiest details. Even flowers for medal winners, for example, must be an IOC-regulated size and not have too much pollen, "to reduce any allergy issues for those holding the bouquets."

Time for a reality check. The IOC should fuss less and focus more on trimming the costs, complexity and tone-deafness of the games. It also must wean itself off dubious governments with fat wallets and bad reputations. Because their dirt and bad decisions rub off. IOC glad-handing of Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Games looked like a bad mistake when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula not long after the closing ceremony. And the $51 billion spent by Russia to prepare the Black Sea resort, plus complaints of displaced homeowners and thugs who horsewhipped punk girls from Pussy Riot, made those weeks in February feel like a distillation of everything that's wrong with the Olympics.

No wonder that people, when actually consulted, would prefer that they happen in someone else's backyard. Use someone else's taxes. Bulldoze someone else's home. Referendum voters rejected potentially strong bids from Munich, Germany, and St. Moritz in Switzerland. Stockholm pulled out. The Polish city of Krakow dropped out after 70 percent of voters rejected its bid in a referendum. And now Oslo has gone, too.

"The so-called bad example from Sochi ...," says IOC member Gian-Franco Kasper, "remains deep inside the people. So wherever you make a vote or referendum they still think about those finances."

"The games are extremely expensive, they are gigantic and by far too much," he added. "What can you do?"

Easy. Scale them back, make them smaller and far less extravagant. Also stop going to places that have to move heaven and earth to get ready, that don't have most of the necessary infrastructure in place and strong democratic, legal and citizen oversight to curb Olympic-related corruption and abuse. Corruption watchdog group Transparency International ranks Kazakhstan very poorly. Among the many turn-offs with Beijing's bid for 2022 is that snow would have to be made artificially for alpine skiing. Environmentally ridiculous, given northern China's alarming water shortages.

The IOC's struggles with 2022 aren't a death blow for the Olympics. If countries' economies improve and the IOC goes through with promised reforms that could make hosting the games less onerous, then there could be plenty of appealing bidders for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

But, in China or Kazakhstan, the IOC will have to lie in the bed that it has made for itself.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester