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Why choice of Beijing to host 2022 Winter Olympics worries even IOC

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Reuters

(Read caption) People cheer as they watch on a screen the IOC announcing Beijing as the winner city for the 2022 winter Olympics bid, outside the Birds' Nest, also known as the National Stadium, in Beijing Friday. Beijing was chosen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the 2022 Winter Olympics on Friday, becoming the first city to be awarded both summer and winter Games.

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In the days before the International Olympic Committee decided to award the 2022 Winter Games to Beijing, there was no sense of anticipation, no sense of occasion.

The choice of an Olympic host city is typically a raucous occasion, one part Hercule Poirot mystery, one part civic hedonism. It's the beauty pageant before the bills start coming in. But the scene at this week's IOC session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was strangely subdued, reported Ed Hula of Around the Rings, a website the follows the Olympic movement, in a podcast.

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On Friday, the IOC chose Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, making Beijing the first city to host the Winter and Summer Games.

But those in attendance in Kuala Lumpur seemed to know what is now widely apparent: the Olympic movement had already lost.

The IOC cannot sprinkle gold dust onto Friday's decision: It was a failure of the Olympic bidding process. Now, the next four years will begin to determine whether the bidding process for the Winter Games, in particular, is in such a state of disrepair that deeper reforms are necessary.

Even Bob Costas will not be able to gloss over the fact that Beijing is an excessively odd choice to host a Winter Olympics, as it lacks snow, mountains, or any discernible winter sports tradition. It won because the IOC had no other viable choice.

Yes, Almaty, Kazakhstan – the only city competing with Beijing – has mountains and snow in abundance, but not hotel rooms, or easy air connections to the rest of the world, or a name anyone who is not a subscriber to Foreign Policy magazine has ever heard of.

To choose Almaty would have been to accept an intolerable and potentially impractical contraction of the Olympics' scope and grandeur.

To choose Beijing would simply be an intolerable inconvenience of time and space, and that is nothing the Chinese government can't handle.

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Like the whole "no snow" thing.

Lest you think we are overstating the Beijing bid's lack of snow, here's a picture of what the alpine skiing venue looks like in January.

Come February 2022, there will be snow in abundance, but probably only a dusting contributed by nature. Beijing will take care of the rest.

There's also the fact that the alpine skiing venue is 55 miles from Beijing. The cross-country and snowboarding venues are 100 miles from the host city.

This is nothing new. The expanding grandeur of the Winter Games means that there are fewer and fewer cities capable of hosting it. Lake Placid, N.Y., for example, is big enough to handle the luge, perhaps, but not much else anymore. Instead, the IOC has opted for big cities vaguely near mountains, like Turin, Vancouver, and Sochi.

Beijing is simply a continuation of the trend.

What will concern the IOC most is the specter that the process that led to Beijing will mark a new trend.

From the beginning, Beijing was not considered a strong candidate, noted Mr. Hula. Yet it won because all the other choices essentially "did a Boston."

This week, Boston punted on hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics, despite being the choice of the United States Olympic Committee. The Games would be too expensive, too disruptive, too much of a party for corporate dilettantes and their Olympic overlords to be worth it, the thinking went.

The IOC won't care much about that. There are top-drawer suitors still eager to win the 2024 Summer Olympics, including Toronto, Hamburg, Rome, and Paris.

But the Winter Olympics?

When Oslo, Norway, and Krakow, Poland, and Stockholm all pull out of the bidding for reasons similar to Boston's; when voters in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Munich reject proposed Olympic bids for reasons similar to Boston's; and when no one in North America bothers to apply, you end up with – Beijing.

"Bostonism" is, for now, a mild annoyance for the Summer Olympics. For the Winter Games, it is a potentially existential threat.

All of this could right itself during the 2026 bidding process. Under President Thomas Bach, the IOC has instituted its Agenda 2020 reforms, aimed at reining in the cost of the Games. Using existing venues – instead of building Athenian white elephants that will simply crumble afterward – is seen as a plus. Cities can also submit joint bids with other cities – even if they're in other countries – to spread the cost.

Trondheim, Norway, and Åre, Sweden, are reportedly considering a joint 2026 bid.

But Boston's bid was chosen precisely because it incorporated the sustainable elements of Agenda 2020. Look how that ended up.

And the Winter Olympics are less prestigious than the summer version and, in some ways, even less practical for host cities. Pyeongchang, South Korea, the host of the 2018 Winter Games, recently considered moving its sliding events to Japan so it wouldn't have to spend $100 million for a bobsled/luge/skeleton track.

Are we on the cusp of a new Olympic era, at least for the Winter Olympics? Could the Olympics be held every four years at the same location? Could bidders be limited only to authoritarian governments and cities that already have all the needed venues (like Paris and Los Angeles)?

The next four years will begin to offer answers.