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EDITORIAL

Potemkin Olympics

“DO NOT give a damn about me, do not give a damn about the government; think about Slovakia”: Prime Minister Robert Fico provided these ‘guidelines’, presumably to those fellow citizens who failed to instantly generate sufficient enthusiasm for his new publicity gimmick, the Polish-Slovak candidacy for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Krakow, calling on them to “keep in mind that, like any other country, Slovakia needs some accomplishments, too”. The prime minister also claimed that he could not understand why some people are bothered by the idea of having the Olympics in Slovakia.

“DO NOT give a damn about me, do not give a damn about the government; think about Slovakia”: Prime Minister Robert Fico provided these ‘guidelines’, presumably to those fellow citizens who failed to instantly generate sufficient enthusiasm for his new publicity gimmick, the Polish-Slovak candidacy for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Krakow, calling on them to “keep in mind that, like any other country, Slovakia needs some accomplishments, too”. The prime minister also claimed that he could not understand why some people are bothered by the idea of having the Olympics in Slovakia.

Well, it is not so much the idea of Slovakia hosting a top international sporting event in the Tatra Mountains that bothers most people, but it is perhaps the public’s mistrust in the way that the ‘organisers’ would handle the large sums of money which the state would pour into what Fico called “the best advertisement” he could ever imagine for Slovakia.

Perhaps critics instantly recalled the image of Potemkin villages, built to impress and earn a mint for the clever one who finds the fastest way to milk the five-ring Olympic cow grazing on Slovakia’s meadows.

Meanwhile, Richard Ďurana, director of the economic think tank the Institute for Social and Economic Studies (INESS), has one or two ideas about how public funds could be used in a more meaningful way to make Slovakia visible: for example, by honing the business environment to attract foreign investors.

After listening to Fico talk about the Olympic dream which, according to him as well as his Polish counterpart, has a 33-percent chance of succeeding, one might get the impression that opposition to the planned candidacy is synonymous with a lack of patriotism and ill-will toward Slovakia’s efforts to make it onto the international tourism radar.

But perhaps the changes should start somewhere deeper than building a couple of stadiums and roads, which are perhaps needed less in the High Tatras than, for example, in eastern Slovakia, or the so-called jobless valleys of southern Slovakia.

Earlier in March, when reporting on the World Economic Forum’s tourism competitiveness report for 2013, the American TV channel CNN picked one of numerous charts, which measured the attitude of different countries’ populations toward foreign visitors: Slovakia placed 133rd out of the assessed 140 countries, ranking higher than Pakistan, Iran, Latvia, Kuwait, the Russian Federation, Venezuela and Bolivia. Though in the global evaluation Slovakia ranked 54th, according to the official WEF website, it was this chart that made it onto the international news.

Another aspect that evokes cynicism is Slovakia’s history with organising international events that were supposed to have rocketed the tourism industry to new heights, yet the big take-off somehow became mired in delays, with the state endlessly pondering logos and themes, and piles of money going into the development of pensions and hotels in places where not many foreign tourists go for a simple reason: after a couple of hours there is not much to do and these places are still only learning to think in terms of tourism packages.

Nevertheless, Košice was featured in a BBC international highlight on February 13, under the headline “Europe’s Unknown Capital of Culture”, suggesting that “many Slovaks would not think of traipsing across the country to check it out. But Košice, Slovakia’s second city and one of 2013’s European Capitals of Culture, is set to surprise everyone”. Meanwhile CNN has ranked Košice among the top tourist destinations of 2013, which in itself is an excellent source of promotion, but of course it does not guarantee that the city will finally be able to make the most of being the capital of culture, with media reports already mentioning delays in the reconstruction of some of the city’s crucial sites.

Back in 2011, Slovakia hosted the Ice Hockey World Championship, of which Ďurana noted that it indeed delivered “infamous” results in terms of costs and revenues: reconstruction of the ice hockey stadium in Bratislava cost €96 million, while revenues from tourism in Bratislava reached only €10.6 million, just over a tenth of the money invested, according to him.

Also, it is only understandable if, in a time when the austerity belt keeps shrinking around everyone’s lives, people fail to generate enough enthusiasm for a candidacy which, even if the country’s prime minister claims will involve “no megalomania”, will still require investments, a feasible plan as well as sensitivity to sites in the High Tatras, some of which are protected areas, and above all, the fact that those involved will have to think more about Slovakia than their own pockets.

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