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Would a Winter Olympics bid put Ukraine on thin ice?

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By Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert
Ukraine's Olympic gold medal figure skater Oksana Baiul performs during a rally at Rockefeller Center Skating Rink in New York City
Ukraine's Olympic gold medal figure skater Oksana Baiul performs during a rally at Rockefeller Center Skating Rink in New York City   -   Copyright  Credit: Reuters
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Ukraine is bidding to host its first Olympics and become only the second-ever country in eastern Europe to put on a winter games.

Populist president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, announcing Kyiv's ambitions, said "our great state deserves to host the Olympics".

But beyond the soundbites, what is the reality? Battling to recover after the COVID pandemic, can Kyiv afford the huge hosting costs?

Why does Ukraine want to host a Winter Olympics?

"The big dream is the Olympic Games in Ukraine," said President Zelenskyy, speaking at the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's National Olympic Committee.

The idea appears to be to combine a Winter Olympics bid with a huge infrastructure spending programme already underway. Euronews has reported on Kyiv's ambition to upgrade thousands of kilometres of its potholed roads. Zelenskyy has also recently launched a programme to "make Ukraine healthier", including the construction of 2,000 parks, 10,000 sports grounds, 100 stadiums, 19 ice rinks, 18 sports boarding schools for children and 100 sports schools.

"But in moments like this," continued Zelenskyy. "I always remember the words of weightlifters and my father, the master of sports in weightlifting. They say: 'It is always not easy to go and try to lift something. It is easy not to try and walk away.' This is what the weightlifters said. Therefore, we will definitely try on the Olympic Games,"

Mykhailo Podolyak, the advisor to Zelenskyy's chief of staff, said it was logical -- given Ukraine's Olympics involvement and infrastructure plans -- that Kyiv makes a bid.

“At the moment, we are talking about hosting the Winter Olympics. At least we will compete for it. There is a formal procedure for this, which we will follow,” he said.

“The nearest option which the world Olympic movement will decide on is 2030. It is quite possible for us to prepare for this term or for the coming years after.

"We are confident that Ukraine will be able to implement this task on its own - on its territory. We have everything we need for this, both from a natural point of view and from a social and infrastructural point of view.

What do experts say about Ukraine's ambition to host a Winter Olympics?

Podolyak argues Ukraine can afford the costs of hosting an Olympics.

The Council of Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, found holding an Olympics often gets more expensive than first estimated.

For example, it said, the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea was projected to cost $7 billion (€6 billion) but ended up costing around $13 billion (€11.2 billion).

“Given the fact that the renewal of the infrastructure of our state will continue in the coming years, we will build everything that may be necessary for the Olympics in any case," said Podolyak.

"Special projects can be implemented additionally. The funds of Ukraine and investors who can join such an ambitious goal, are full enough to prepare for the Olympics, one hundred per cent.”

But the experts that Euronews consulted are sceptical.

Aleksey Jakubin, an associate professor at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, said it might simply be too expensive.

He points to the fact Ukraine has budget problems, a war with pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country and many poor people to take care of.

“Next year, Ukraine needs to pay a large amount back to its creditors," he added. "Therefore, it will be a huge financial investment for Ukraine to host the Olympics at this point.

"This idea of the Winter Olympics is also seen as contradictory by some Ukrainians. People are told that we have budget problems and problems with creditors, but we can then host the games, which will be a huge financial investment.”

Ukraine scrapped a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Lyiv because of the political crisis that broke out in 2014.

Jakubin said Lviv is most likely to be picked as the host city for this latest bid.

“Zelenskyy and his inner circle think that the Olympic Games is a good idea for PR and that it can give resources for improving infrastructure,” said Jakubin.

'Kittens, happy faces and unicorns'

Professor Jules Boykoff, an expert on the politics of the Olympics from Pacific University, Oregon, told Euronews Ukraine will face many difficulties if they move forward with the plans.

While politicians often talk about the many benefits of hosting the Olympics, the reality is often much different, said Boykoff.

For example, the games often become more expensive than first estimated.

A 2020 study found the average price for the last five Olympics was around $12 billion (€10.3 billion), which did not include the costs of infrastructure and hotels. In addition, the study points out that the Olympics in Greece in 2004 weakened the Greece economy and “contributed to the country's deep financial and economic crises”.

“The records show that every Olympics going back to the 1960s, from which we have reliable data, has had a cost overrun. In the early bid stages, it is common to say that it will only cost x amount. Still, almost inevitably, we see costs increase over time,” said Boykoff, adding that many facilities are often left unused once the games have finished.

He said the reality often only kicks in when a city is finally granted the Olympics and the actual costs become visible. For Ukraine, Boykoff said, it will be essential to be realistic about the costs and make a detailed plan, which should be made public early on.

“The problems are not only related to costs. There are other elements too, such as the militarisation of public space,” said Boykoff. “Many hosts use the games to increase their weapons stocks and pass special laws which tend to suppress dissent. And they stay on the books after the Olympics. We also see forced evictions and displacements, especially of the poor and working-class people.

“If the Ukrainian team decides to put forward a serious bid, they will need to have addressed those other problems ingrained in the Olympics,” he added, pointing out it was important to involve Ukrainians in the decision-making process, possible with a vote.

“In the early bidding, it is often kittens and happy faces and unicorns, but right as soon as bids become serious, criticism will come flying quickly at the Ukrainian bid team,” he said.