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.
The Farmer's Daughter
The farmers have plenty of reasons to oppose the bid. Some worry about protecting the natural environment; others can't stand the mayor. Take the case of a farmer who wants to extend his garage but can't win the necessary building permit. He happens to own a piece of property crossed by the Kandahar run. Without this piece of land, the finish line would have to move, and the famous "free fall," a spectacularly steep stretch in the lower part of the ski run, would drop out of the course. While this man waits for some sort of offer from the local government, officials have threatened him with outright expropriation.
Squabbling over the bid has thrown the region off-balance. Hotel operators, owners of small businesses and most of the members of the municipal council support the bid. But members of the CSU's youth organization are against it. They're worried about expenses arising from the Olympics, especially since Garmisch-Partenkirchen already has more than €100 million in public debt.
The dispute has turned nasty, personal and even physical. There have been fistfights between supporters and opponents in festival tents and bars. An official from an environmentalist group has received death threats in the mail. And unknown culprits wrecked the car of a spokeswoman for the landowners and then placed a sign one morning in front of her front door. "You are already dead," it read.
Elizabeth Koch, in her law office in Partenkirchen, smokes one cigarette after another. She's the CSU floor leader at the district council, and she originally approved the bid. Now she wonders if she made the right decision. Some local environmentalist doomsayers believe that clearing parts of the countryside to expand the ski runs will cause the entire mountain to slide down. For weeks, the mayor has barricaded himself in city hall. He accuses the farmers of only wanting to stand in the way of modernizing the community. The farmers think their phones have been tapped.
As Koch sees it, the community needs a mediator like the one who recently sat for weeks with promoters and detractors of Stuttgart 21, the massive -- and massively controversial -- urban redevelopment and railway project in the southwestern German city of Stuttgart.
Thomas Bach, the president of the German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB), once called the region's farmers "fundamentalist Luddites." Of course, Witt would never let an insult like that slip out. Her father worked at a state-owned seed and plant company, which -- at least according to her -- makes her a farmer's daughter.
Gold Medals and Playboy
Witt sits in an airplane. Delegates of the European Olympic Committee want to meet in Belgrade to take another close look at the candidates for 2018. During the approach to Belgrade, she quickly paints her nails.
The slogan of Munich's bid is "The Friendly Games." Witt, as the cheerful face of the campaign, watches over things with the ease of an ice queen. "We want to build a perfect stage for the athletes," she says.
Some people have a hard time taking her seriously. She's made films with Tom Cruise and been on the cover of Playboy. But many IOC members revere her as an Olympic legend. In fact she lends so much star power to the campaign that several Olympic officials will reportedly back Munich's bid based solely upon her affiliation.
After lunch, Witt speaks with Bach, the DOSB president, in the lobby. Witt looks great in her dark dress, while Bach seems to treat the issue as the next nuclear nonproliferation treaty. He stresses that the "German factor" - such as the quality of Germany's autobahns -- has to come across well. He says freeways are a big plus for Germany's bid. The road from Munich to Garmisch may even be expanded (again) for the Olympic Games. "We have to keep our balance and let the details deliver the punch," Bach says.
"Of course," Witt responds and gets herself an espresso.
The next day, while she presents the bid film in the convention hall, a few delegates take pictures with their cell phones. The film shows shots taken from the air of Munich's Olympic Park, (built for the 1972 Summer Games), the Zugspitze and Neuschwanstein, the 19th-century castle built by "mad" King Ludwig II. She mentions Germany's autobahns, its high-speed trains, its €1.3 billion Olympic budget.
Witt is flying pretty high -- so high, in fact, that you can no longer make out Agnes and Theo Geyer, the farmers from the hills above Garmisch-Partenkirchen, from this distance.
Ludwig Seitz, a Munich-based lawyer specializing in contract law, has the Olympic plans spread on a table. Since he represents the Geyers and a number of other farmers, he is battling Witt, Angela Merkel and even Joachim Löw, the head coach of Germany's national football team.
The plans show sports facilities in Garmisch-Partenkirchen planned for the Olympics, but you can also make out property lines and the numbered parcels of land. Seitz points to parcel number 2,863, the Geyer property earmarked for the half-pipe, as well as to the skiing area on the nearby Gudiberg mountain and the properties that extend into the Kandahar ski run. None are available for the Olympics, says Seitz.
Before Christmas, he shared the same information in a letter to Bavaria's state chancellery which closed with a terse request for "immediate confirmation that the bid has been officially retracted." It was a pretty plucky push. But Katarina Witt knew how to push back. Two days later, she marched into the federal Chancellery to see Angela Merkel, who seems to make a point of signing all guarantee declarations for the Olympics in the public eye.
'Enough Is Enough'
Theo Geyer takes refuge from the snow in the comfort of his living room. On the wall hangs a picture of his mother. In 1941, the Nazis expropriated her property for the "expansion of Olympic sports facilities (in Berlin)," according to documents.
Sixty years ago, the Geyers were still living down below in the village. Thanks to growth from Alpine tourism, things grew too tight for farming, so the family moved up to the surrounding mountains. Now the town's popularity has caught up with them once again. Their farm lies smack in the middle of prime skiing area. When the season kicks off, snow-making machines blow fine powder over the countryside. Their steam condenses on windows, and the farmers have to shut the doors and windows to their barns because the frigid mist makes their cows ill. And now the Olympics are supposed to come.
Geyer sits calmly at the table next to Seitz, the lawyer. If push comes to shove, they hope to take their case to Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land.
Katarina Witt claims that hosting the Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen will make it a more beautiful, more famous resort. But, as Theo Geyer sees it, tourists discovered this part of the Alps long ago. "The British, the Americans and the Russians already know about us," he says. "Enough is enough."
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