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Mountain Revolt: Bavarian Farmers Threaten Bid for Olympic Games

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Resistance from disgruntled farmers in the Alpine town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen has rattled Germany's dream of hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics. While skating legend Katarina Witt and others scramble to save the bid, controversy has torn apart the peaceful mountain resort.

Photo Gallery: Trouble in the Hills Photos
DPA

Before the big snow arrives in Bavaria, Katarina Witt, the former East German Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, sits in her office in Munich mulling how far she should commit. In the evening there will be a panel discussion in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with opponents of Bavaria's bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. As the head of Munich 2018, the group organizing the bid, she should be there.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is the heart of the bid. It's in this Alpine town south of Munich where the contests would be held, where the classic snowy images of the winter games would originate.

Witt looks up at the ceiling. You just have to speak rationally with people, she says: "Talking always helps." But, as the so-called "Ice Princess of Saxony" -- a state northeast of Bavaria that used to be part of communist East Germany -- Witt is apparently not the right person to negotiate with southern mountain folk. So the group's spokesman will attend the panel discussion instead.

An 'East German Icon'

The next day, Witt has an appointment with a new sponsor. The company that runs Bavaria's lottery will donate €2 million ($2.7 million) to help the bid. The Munich 2018 spokesman is there, too, and he isn't in good shape. He wore a traditional short-collared Bavarian sport coat to the previous night's meeting, but it didn't help. The other men at the panel table were decked out in traditional Bavarian hats decorated with feathers, pins and other assorted ornaments.

Whenever he tried to get a word in edgewise, he was drowned in boos. At the end of the evening a farmer stood up to say the sheer fact that the bid campaign is being led by an "East German icon" shows just how lousy it is. He was received by hearty applause.

Witt took over Munich 2018 four months ago, replacing Willy Bogner, the clothing mogul and onetime Olympic skier who could never seem to build up steam for the bid. With Witt at the top, things have been moving better. She seems less formal than Bogner.

She recently met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who also lived in East Germany); they laughed a lot and discovered that the same person does their makeup. At the 2010 Oktoberfest, Witt posed with the head of the lottery in front of a plastic lion. She wore a dirndl, the traditional Bavarian dress. She's managed to line up all of Bavaria's major institutions behind the bid, including BMW, FC Bayern (a football team), former Alpine skiing champion Rosi Mittermaier, and the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Not in Our Pastures

The only place that doesn't seem to like the bid is Garmisch-Partenkirchen. This market town lies in the shadow of the Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain, about an hour south of Munich on the autobahn. It's a winter-sports mecca. The first Winter Olympics were held here in 1936; a ski-jumping contest occurs each New Year's Day; and in February the best alpine cross-country skiers will start their World Championships race on the local course.

But environmentalists have protested the Munich 2018 bid for months, and farmers are refusing to lease their fields for the necessary structures and venues. Indeed, the locals are afraid of losing what they call home. Plans call for an athletes' village and an "Olympic boulevard" between the sporting venues, which would spoil part of the greenbelt surrounding the town. (The greenbelt is home to some of the farmers' hay barns.) Last summer, 160 landowners returned the licensing agreements mailed to them by local officials, and hired a lawyer.

Then the state government got involved. Secret meetings were held in alpine huts. The Olympic plans were made less ambitious; but even so, just before Christmas, 59 landowners said they were determined not to lease their property.

For the architects of Bavaria's Olympic bid, Garmisch-Partenkirchen has become a minefield. On Jan. 11, they have to present their "bid book," a sort of master plan for the games, to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). But the people drafting the plan keep finding themselves situating elements of the layout -- an access road, a parking lot, a grandstand -- on property no longer available to them.

In July, the IOC will host a ceremony awarding the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at a congress in Durban, South Africa. Two competing cities, France's Annecy and South Korea's Pyeongchang, have tossed their hats in the ring, but the choice really seems to be between Bavaria and South Korea. There were no problems with farmers in Pyeongchang, however; they were simply booted off their land.

'We Can't Feed Our Beasts Money'

Agnes Geyer trudges along in heavy rubber boots on a pasture in the mountain hills above Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The 66-year-old farmer limps a bit after having been kicked by a cow.

As a young woman, Agnes had been a good skier, and her 66-year-old husband Theo had played ice hockey with SC Riessersee, a local professional team. Every year, they allow the ski club to use their meadows to host World Cup races. One meadow lies at the foot of the "Kandahar," a famously treacherous run. Lately some improvements have been made to the run, including compacting the ground so rain water quickly courses off into the valley. The Geyers' meadow has therefore been inundated with water, which makes it useless as grazing land. Last year, the local government paid them €362 in compensation.

The Geyers have 40 cows in their barn. Now they have to get some of the feed for them from a mountain meadow near their farm that is too steep to be mowed with anything but a scythe. Plans for the 2018 Olympics call for part of this property to be used for a gigantic half-pipe made of snow and ice for snowboarding competitions. Positions for TV cameras also have to be built.

No one asked permission; things were just planned this way. But the Geyers don't want a half-pipe on their property. They're afraid the grass there won't grow well after the Olympics. They also don't want to sell the meadow. "We can't feed our beasts money," Agnes says, kicking a lump of ice that gains bulk as it rolls down the snow-covered slope.

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