London - The Olympics have weathered world wars, boycotts and corruption scandals. These days, the IOC has a new crisis on its hands: Finding cities willing to host the games.
The troubled race for the 2022 Winter Olympics is a case in point. High costs and internal political opposition prevented several potential contenders from bidding. Two candidate cities withdrew and two others could still drop out.
The way things are going, the winner could be decided next year by default. Take the games, please.
“I have not seen anything like this before,” senior Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said. “This is urgent. We need to sit down and discuss what is going on. We are at a crossroads here.”
It's a challenge the International Olympic Committee and new President Thomas Bach need to resolve quickly to ensure the long-term viability of the world's most prized sports event.
Changes to the bidding process and efforts to reduce the cost of the games are among the key issues being addressed by the IOC as part of Bach's “Agenda 2020,” his blueprint for the future of the Olympic movement that will be voted on in December.
Watching closely are countries and cities considering whether to bid for the even bigger and more expensive Summer Olympics of 2024.
The financial burden is worrying potential host cities. Specifically, the $51 billion price tag associated with February's Winter Olympics in Sochi. Olympic officials say most of that huge sum went to long-term projects and that the operations costs of the Olympics were no higher than previous games.
No matter. The public perception is that the games cost too much.
Concerns over Rio de Janeiro's delayed preparations for the 2016 Olympics have further dampened enthusiasm for hosting the games.
The Olympics continue to succeed as a spectacle, with huge audiences on television and online. But the field for 2022 has taken one hit after the other.
Munich and St. Moritz-Davos withdrew planned bids when voters in Germany and Switzerland voted 'no' in referendums. Stockholm, one of the five declared candidates, pulled out in December after the city government declined to offer financial backing. On Monday, the Polish city of Krakow dropped out after 70 percent of voters rejected the bid in a referendum.
That leaves four cities in contention for now: Almaty, Kazakhstan; Beijing; Lviv, Ukraine; and Oslo, Norway.
The bid from Lviv has been on hold because of the turmoil in Ukraine.
It's possible only three bids will still be in play when the IOC executive board meets in Lausanne, Switzerland, from July 7-9 to decide which cities go to the final stage. Rather than cut the field, the board would likely keep the remaining three. The host city will be selected by the full IOC in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31, 2015.
Most worrying for the IOC is the uncertain status of the Oslo bid. Polls show 60 percent of Norwegians are opposed. One of the two parties in the governing coalition came out against the bid earlier this month. The government won't decide until the autumn whether to provide the required financial guarantees.
“We have an image problem,” Heiberg said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “People in Norway say we love the games but we hate the IOC.”
Oslo, which hosted the 1952 Winter Olympics, would have been the natural favorite. Norway lives and breathes winter sports and its athletes have won the most medals at the Winter Games. The 1994
Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, are widely described as the best ever.
“If there is a referendum today, the 'no' side will win by a large margin,” said Heiberg, who organized the Lillehammer Games. “But this could change. We have time.”
Amid all the instability, Almaty and Beijing stand as the most solid bids.
Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Olympics, is bidding to become the first city to host both the summer and winter games, with Alpine events in Zhangjiakou. Almaty, the commercial capital of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, hosted the 2011 Asian Games and will host the Winter University Games in 2017. It looks like the current favorite.
Has the situation reached the stage where the Olympics can only be held in non-democratic countries where money is no object? No public referendums are being held in Beijing or Almaty. Kazakhstan has been ruled by the same leader in 1989. Both countries have been criticized for their human rights records.
“I see a problem in Western Europe,” Heiberg said. “We have to accept the fact that we are not attractive to Western European countries. People think the games have become gigantic, the investments are too heavy.”
The current crisis centers primarily on Winter Games, which also face concerns over whether rising temperatures will prevent countries from holding the event in future decades. But the attention will soon shift to the race for a bigger prize: the 2024 Summer Games.
The U.S., which hasn't hosted the Summer Games since Atlanta in 1996, is weighing another bid after failed campaigns by New York (2012) and Chicago (2016). The USOC is expected to decide whether to put a city forward by the end of the year.
Still in the mix are Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Dallas and San Diego.
Paris, Rome and a city from Germany are potential contenders from Europe. Other possible bidders include Doha, Qatar; Istanbul, Turkey, and a city in South Africa.