Sochi's 'Spring' Olympics: Why give the Winter Games to a summer resort?

Warm temperatures, rain, and fog have all hit the Sochi Olympics, with two events postponed Monday. And the trend toward non-traditional cities for Winter Olympics is just getting started.

David J. Phillip/AP
Visitors to the Olympic Park pass by palm trees on a warm, sunny day at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, last week.

For the second consecutive Winter Olympics, a host nation has chosen to put its Games in perhaps the least wintry part of its country, and Monday that began to catch up with the organizers of Sochi 2014.

Vancouver had its share of issues in 2010. It had to lift snow into the snowboard and freestyle skiing venues by helicopter, and the moguls competition took place in a driving rain.

Here in Sochi, the problems have, until now, been subtler. When temperatures hit the mid-60s on the coast last week, alpine venues to the west saw snow turn into slush as the day progressed, giving an advantage to skiers who drew an earlier start time. Today, the men's biathlon 15 km mass start and the men's snowboardcross have been postponed – biathlon for the second time in two days – as fog ruined visibility.

It's only the third time an Olympic biathlon has been postponed due to weather.

So far, the Sochi organizing committee has been able to cope reasonably well. But the weather problems speak to a more troubling trend in the Olympic movement – one that could grow only more pronounced for the Winter Games in the years ahead.

It is getting harder and harder to find cities that both can hold the Winter Olympics and want to.

Consider this: When was the last time that the daytime high temperature in a Winter Olympics host city was below freezing? In other words, when was the last time a Winter Olympics felt like a Winter Olympics? Day 2 of the Salt Lake Games, where the high was 30 degrees, according to this fascinating chart by The Wall Street Journal. Before that, the last time was in Lillehammer, Norway, where the entire Olympics took place in freezing temperatures. 

That's one "winter" day in the past five Winter Olympics – a stretch of 79 days of competition in Nagano, Salt Lake, Turin, Vancouver, and Sochi.

Of course, these Olympics had venues in mountain villages where temperatures were colder, but it used to be that the mountain venues were the Winter Olympics. Lake Placid, anyone?

But the reality of the modern Winter Olympics is that the alpine hamlets that in many ways define winter sport are no longer capable of holding an Olympic Games. Could anyone imagine Lake Placid contending with the 650,000 visitors, 25,000 volunteers, 12,600 media personnel, and 2,600 athletes needed to put on the Vancouver Olympics? It's a nonstarter.

That instantly and dramatically cuts down the number of global cities that can even think about bidding. How many cities of at least a few hundred thousand are at or plausibly near Olympic-level alpine skiing venues?

In the US, the list might be only three cities long: Salt Lake; Denver; and Reno, Nev.

Going forward, however, the bigger problem for the International Olympic Committee could be finding cities that meet this criteria and also want to hold the Games. The IOC's motto for the cities that are bidding for the 2022 Winter Games is "five strong cities." That's "laughable" and shows how hard it could become for the IOC to find suitable venues for the Winter Games, says Ed Hula of "Around the Rings," a website that tracks the Olympic movement.

The bid cities include Oslo, Norway, where the mountain venues would be 120 miles away; Krakow, Poland, where the mountain venues would be in Slovakia; Lviv, Ukraine, where the mountains are 60 miles away; Almaty, Kazakhstan, which lies right next to mountains but, like Ukraine, has a limited winter sports tradition; and, amazingly, Beijing, which is trying to become the first city to hold a Summer and Winter Olympics. The mountains there are more than 120 miles away and of dubious quality.

"Oslo is the only city that has any strength to offer," says Hula.

It also happens to be the only city that is ambivalent about its own bid. In the coming weeks, the Norwegian parliament is expected to vote on whether it will back the bid. If it doesn't, the bid is essentially finished.

The IOC knows that Olympics are such massive events that the cooperation and enthusiasm of local and national governments is essential. Russian President Vladimir Putin won Sochi's bid in large part by personally traveling to an IOC meeting in Guatemala and making his pitch in English.

But the Sochi Games serve Putin's interests, just as the Games in Beijing, Turin, Athens, and Salt Lake served interests beyond sport. Given the hassle and cost of holding the Games, however, many of the traditional winter nations are opting out. As Hula asks: What does St. Mortiz have to gain from holding the Winter Games?

Plans for a Munich 2022 bid were dashed when residents in the regions that would have held the events voted down the idea in a referendum. Meanwhile, voters in Switzerland have twice rejected a proposal to hold the Winter Olympics, killing a Bern bid for 2010 and a St. Moritz bid for 2022.

The IOC, however, also has itself to blame. In choosing Sochi for 2014 and Pyeongchang, South Korea, for 2018, it chose the countries with the strongest support for the Games, and which were willing to spend billions to get them. Among the cities rejected in those rounds of voting: Munich; Salzburg, Austria; and Annecy, France, near the winter sports haven of Chamonix.

Now, Munich voters have turned against the Olympics, and Salzburg and Annecy say they won't bid again, suggesting they can't compete with free-spending candidates from other parts of the world, says Hula. 

The result is that the only cities bidding for the Winter Olympics are "smaller places that have never had them before, and places that have to cobble together the facilities and the mountains they need," Hula says.

Pyeongchang tried to be the closest thing to a throwback Olympics, making the mountain city (population 54,000) the titular host of the Games. But it follows the same pattern as Sochi, Vancouver, and Turin, with skating events held in the larger coastal city of Gangneung (population 230,000) a one hour drive away. Pyeongchang was simply not big enough to handle the entire Olympics.

But at least it feels like winter in Pyeongchang. Monday it was in the 30s with flurries. The forecast for Sochi later this week? Sixty-three degrees and sunny.

So far, at least Dubai hasn't put in a Winter Olympics bid, says Hula, only half joking.

"The IOC really has had a tough time finding cities in the traditional centers of winter sport," he says. "They're going to realize before too long that the well's going to run dry."

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