Winter Olympics 2018 Ambivalence Meets Bavarian Bid for Games

German athletes and officials in Vancouver are lobbying hard for Munich to be chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. But back home in Bavaria, the idea is losing popularity, and small-town farmers might scuttle the whole plan.

It's day three of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and Willy Bogner is having a bite to eat at a waterfront restaurant. German luger Felix Loch has just won the country's first gold medal of the games. A day earlier, police used batons to quell violent anti-Olympics protests in downtown Vancouver. But Bogner hasn't noticed any of this since he doesn't have any time to stroll through the city.

Bavaria's capital city has its sights set on hosting the Winter Games in eight years, and Bogner, 68, is the head of Munich's 2018 bid. Two other cities, France's Annecy and South Korea's Pyeongchang, have also tossed their hats in the ring. Bogner has come to Canada to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that Munich is the best choice.


Photo Gallery: Munich's Bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics

Foto: Christophe Karaba/ dpa

Bogner is staying at the official IOC hotel, where he meets with IOC members every day. Since arriving in Vancouver, he has already had 70 meetings, not all of which have been easy. For example, Bogner says, the IOC representatives from Africa know "very little about winter sports."

Bogner looks exhausted and not completely awake, but he can't give up now. While in Vancouver, he's hoping to meet with at least 100 IOC officials. This is about the Olympics; he's fighting for Germany.

He wolfs down a chicken dinner and hurries back to the hotel.

Unknown Costs

Though she's a long way from Vancouver, Christl Freier is also fighting. She's not fighting for Germany, though; she's fighting for her home. The elementary school teacher from the small town of Oberammergau in southern Bavaria is standing on a hiking path on the edge of town, where it's cold and quiet. Gazing at the snow-covered meadows and mountain slopes surrounding her, Freier says: "I don't need the Olympics here."

Oberammergau is a town of about 5,000 people famous for its wood carvings and even more so for its Passion Play. If Munich wins the 2018 bid, the biathlon and cross-country skiing contests will be held in the town. Cross-country ski runs, grandstands and a media center will be constructed in the fields below the Romanshöhe neighborhood. After the games, everything will be dismantled, and the natural environment is expected to recover from the spectacle within a few years. Or at least that's the plan.

Last November, the Oberammergau town council approved the Olympic bid by a 16-1 vote. At the time, people in favor of hosting the games argued that they would raise the profile of the town, which is heavily dependent on tourism. The only vote against the plan came from Christl Freier, a council member representing a group called the Women's List. When the decision was announced, Freier said: "We are compromising our natural environment. We are sliding into something here, and no one knows what it will end up costing us."

After the vote, Freier became the target of quite a few barbed remarks in the town. But she didn't let that bother her, and now many other town residents have also started questioning the decision. Some local farmers have become a thorn in the side of the team advocating for Munich because they won't grant permission for the Games to be held on their property. It's dawned on them that the town has signed off on something completely unpredictable.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The Olympics are a gigantic spectacle. For about three weeks, they completely transform a country and a city. They can release a massive burst of excitement, as they have in Vancouver, and trigger a national sense of joy that radiates into the rest of the world. But the Olympics also involve power, politics and profit. Though the IOC gives host cities neither guarantees nor assurances, it still makes plenty of demands that have to be fulfilled. Indeed, negotiation isn't one of the IOC's strong points.

Bogner, the CEO of Munich 2018, hasn't had a chance to meet Christl Freier, but he will be meeting with IOC officials from South America at his hotel this afternoon. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Christian Ude, Munich's mayor, have also traveled to Canada to add their weight to Bogner's campaign for the 2018 games. There are also employees of the organization in charge of the bid, who are trying to get a behind-the-scenes look at the games. And, lastly, there are lobbyists trying to divine the IOC's mood.

In their minds, they are all working toward the same goal. "We're talking about the next generations of Germans interested in winter sports," Bogner says. From his vantage point here in Vancouver, Oberammergau is just a very small, distant place.

Doing the Olympics Right

In July 2011, the IOC will announce its pick to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. The games in Vancouver are an important step in the bidding process for the future games. There, at the British Columbia International Media Centre, the three candidates will have a chance to present their plans to an international audience. Each candidate has 30 minutes to make its case in a ceremony not unlike a casting call. Germany is second in line, after Annecy and before Pyeongchang.

It's the day before the presentation, and Bogner is nervous. He has prepared a speech, every word of which has been pored over by the speechwriters. Munich already even has an Olympic slogan: Journey of Friendship.

Bogner is a huge fan of the Olympics. His father was selected to deliver the Olympic oath for athletes at the 1936 Olympic Games held in nearby Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and Bogner himself competed as a downhill skier in the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics and the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. For decades, a fashion company he owns has designed the outfits for the German Winter Olympic team. Bogner also produced the film that accompanied the winning bid for the Russian city of Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held.

Vancouver is a good example for just how smoothly the Olympics can go. The games there have not been drenched in pathos or frenzied with security paranoia. Despite periods of heavy rainfall in the first week, the public viewing arenas were full, as fans cheered on snowboarders and freestyle skiers, who have tended to be marginalized in past Olympics.

If Munich wins the bidding process, Bogner hopes the games there will go just as smoothly. But Germany doesn't win medals in the half pipe. Instead, Germany's strengths lie in events featuring the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton. German athletics are all about winning medals -- and lots of them.

Dousing the Olympic Flame

The most depressing place at the Olympics is the German House in Vancouver, which the German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB) set up at a local university to serve as a meeting place. But anyone who goes there after leaving sport venues pulsating with energy will immediately feel drained of all emotion. The winners on any given day are herded into a soundproof conference room with gray walls to be put on display. Some of the athletes have performed well in the media spotlight. After her first victory, for example, biathlete Magdalena Neuner told a riveting tale via teleconference about having spent 13 years of her life preparing her body to win a metal at the Olympics.

Moments like this can highlight just how important the Olympics are for athletes. But then, only a moment later, the magic dissipates when someone in the next room toasts a group of sponsors. Indeed, unless they are there for press conferences, athletes tend to be a rare sight at the German House. After having checked it out once, they have apparently decided to steer clear of the place.

If German winter sports want to make themselves more attractive to younger generations, they sure could do with a bit of revitalization. With the Olympic bid for Munich, Bogner has a chance to push through some changes. But the bidding team has done little to generate enthusiasm and to convince people of the benefits of a major event that tends to frighten many of them away.

'Something Fishy is Going On'

Christl Freier, for example, is deeply suspicious of the Olympics. One reason for this has to do with the modern biathlon stadium currently being built in the Bavarian town of Ruhpolding, which will host the World Championships in 2012. Freier can't understand why Bogner would prefer to erect an arena on a meadow in Oberammergau -- and one that would just be torn down afterwards -- instead of using the facility in Ruhpolding. As Freier sees it, the plan is both an unnecessary waste of money and "environmental nonsense."

Munich 2018 insists that the facility has to be in Oberammergau no matter what because the IOC doesn't like to see the competition venues spread too far apart. According to the company, a 2018 Munich Winter Olympics would have to have two centers, or "clusters." Munich would be the "ice cluster," while Oberammergau and nearby Garmisch-Partenkirchen would be the "snow cluster." Bogner and his colleagues say that there is no alternative and that the only way a candidate stands a chance of winning a bid for the Olympics is by bowing to the will of the IOC.

In recent weeks, Oberammergau has become a laboratory of sorts for gauging the German mood regarding the Olympics. Last fall, almost the entire town supported the bid. But now that near-consensus is beginning to crumble because no one knows exactly who is in charge of guaranteeing that the meadows, which will be ruined for the Games, will eventually be returned to their pristine state. According to the draft agreement, the town -- rather than the IOC or Munich 2018 -- would be liable for any problems encountered in restoring the environment after the games. As Freier sees it, "Something fishy is going on in Oberammergau."

Potential Victory, Minus the Bang

At the moment, Bogner doesn't give much thought to such concerns. On day four of the games in Vancouver, he is sitting on a stage in the "Quadra" conference room in the media center presenting Germany's plan for the 2018 Winter Olympics before a packed audience.

Bogner reads from a prepared speech, as does the mayor of Munich. Interior Minister de Maizière assures his listeners in a very statesmanlike fashion that the German government stands behind the application. IOC Vice President Thomas Bach, who is also president of the DOSB, promises the best games ever. As a sign of solidarity, all of the presenters are wearing white ties.

The exceedingly dull presentation lasts a good 20 minutes. The reporters crowd around Katarina Witt, the former Olympic gold medalist in figure skating who now chairs the board of the trustees of Munich 2018. No one is interested in Ude, Bogner or Bach. Despite the uninspired performance, after the event, the experts still predict that the prize will go to either Munich or Pyeongchang. The Annecy plan also sounds appealing, they say, but the competition venues are too far apart. They also believe the Germans have a good chance of winning.

But there's still one small problem -- Oberammergau. And it's a problem that is slowly getting bigger.

A Small Town 's Trump Card

In order to build the biathlon stadium and the cross-country ski runs, game organizers would have to lease land from 188 property owners. But according to a survey the town recently conducted, 20 percent of these property owners are unwilling to lease their land.

In the end, this could turn out to be a major disaster -- for Germany, for Munich and for Bogner. On the day after the presentation, Bogner is taking a walk past a harbor full of yachts in Vancouver. The sun is shining. He is just a few hundred meters away from the Olympic flame.

Bogner pauses for a moment to think before sharing what he would say to the obstinate farmers in Oberammergau who are unwilling to provide access to their land, despite the fact that the town council has already voted in favor of being part of the Olympic bid. "Winter games are an event of national significance," he says, "and citizens should abide by the commitments their representatives have already made." It's a sharply worded, aggressive sentence. But, still, this is Germany, and here you can't expropriate farmers for a sports festival.

Back in Oberammergau, Christl Freier is keeping her cool while taking a wait-and-see approach. She voted against the Olympics because she believes it was the right decision. A committed democrat, Freier is now pinning her hopes on the common sense of the residents of her hometown.

"Farmers in this town have a very good nose for people trying to pull a fast one on them," she says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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