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Olympic bid process might be on thin ice

Special to The Times

The sarcasm fairly dripped from Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer’s voice as he pointed to the ice rink Russia has assembled to promote Sochi’s bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“This is a good symbol of how our friends in Russia understand environment -- putting a skating facility in a country with a temperature of almost 30 degrees [86 Fahrenheit],” Gusenbauer told The Times as he walked through Guatemala City on Tuesday afternoon.

“This already indicates how they will handle the environment in Sochi.”

Rarely are such strong sentiments uttered openly in the bid process, where jibes generally are made off the record or through sub rosa distribution of materials critical of a rival bid.

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Chancellor Gusenbauer apparently has decided his country’s underdog bidder, Salzburg, no longer has anything to gain by being politic in a competition he feels is far too political. He portrays today’s vote for the 2014 host in almost apocalyptic terms.

“It’s a fight for the future of the Olympic movement,” he said.

That idea could resonate with those International Olympic Committee members who find the campaign styles of the other two finalists, Sochi and Pyeongchang, South Korea, to be over the top.

The IOC calls environmental sensitivity one of the “guiding principles” of the Olympic movement. Gusenbauer thinks other Olympic principles also have been violated in the 2014 contest.

“Many IOC members are very much concerned about how this campaign is going on,” said Gusenbauer, who has spoken with four dozen of the 111 members since arriving Saturday. “Some have the impression this is an auction.

“Many dislike this economic and political power play. This could be in favor of a Salzburg that simply does not participate in this type of auction.”

Salzburg bid officials say they have spent $13 million on the campaign, compared with an announced $30 million by Sochi and $32.5 million by Pyeongchang. Informed estimates have the Koreans and Russians spending more than $40 million.

IOC marketing director Gerhard Heiberg of Norway, who told the Associated Press on Monday he thought too much money was being spent to win the Winter Olympics, said Tuesday, “I want to discuss it after this [vote] is over. We have to go over the rules for this.” Asked if a lot of money was being wasted, Heiberg replied, “I wouldn’t say wasted.”

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Any change in the way bid campaigns are run or the amounts to be spent on them could affect Chicago’s 2016 Summer Olympic candidacy. The Chicago 2016 bid committee said it already has raised $32 million in cash and services and is looking for several million more.

In the aftermath of the vote-buying scandal focused on the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the IOC banned members from visiting bid cities. That saved the candidates the substantial expense of visits by 100-plus members and their families.

That savings has been swallowed up by the costly public relations efforts bid cities now finance.

“The number of advertisements being taken on CNN and the newspapers must be very expensive,” IOC member John Coates of Australia said.

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The stakes are such each country’s leader -- Gusenbauer, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun -- has come to Guatemala to schmooze IOC members and take part in their city’s one-hour presentation to the membership today. The head of state’s presence seems to have become almost mandatory since Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, helped London upset Paris as 2012 Summer Games host.

The vote, by secret ballot, immediately follows the presentations. If no city gets a majority on the first ballot, the low vote-getter is eliminated, and there is a second ballot.

Salzburg was the first city eliminated in the three-city 2010 final, getting only 16 of 107 votes. Vancouver defeated Pyeongchang by three votes on the decisive ballot.

Nearly half the voting members come from countries, most relatively small, with little involvement in winter sports. Gusenbauer felt all small countries might as well be disenfranchised if the IOC rejects Salzburg, from a nation of 8.1 million, in favor of cities from countries with greater population (South Korea, 49 million; Russia, 141 million) and economic clout.

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“If the Winter Games is going only to big countries, what will be the role of smaller countries in the Olympic movement?” Gusenbauer said. “The Winter Games always has been a possibility for smaller countries to contribute.”

IOC member Mario Pescante of Italy, whose country had the host city (Turin) of the 2006 Olympics, saw the three candidates as having “very different character.”

“Salzburg is the traditional winter sports character, with venues and facilities in place, which appeals to conservative IOC members,” he said. “Sochi could play an important role in the promoting of winter sport in Russia, Pyeongchang in the promotion of winter sport in Asia.”

Pyeongchang also is pushing the idea a successful bid could help the process of reunifying the two Koreas. “I find that idea a bit exaggerated,” Pescante said.

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Philip Hersh covers the Olympics for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.


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