Reporting from the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in Malaysia – With only a day remaining in the two-year 2022 Olympic Winter Games bid campaign, delegations from both Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China have arrived in Kuala Lumpur and can be seen wandering the corridors of the Convention Centre (KLCC) and nearby hotels.
On Friday, the first day of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) 128th all-members session, most of the 97 eligible members will vote to elect their choice of the two remaining bid cities – though some no shows, most notably FIFA Chief Sepp Blatter, will likely reduce that number further.
“Our message has been delivered very well,” Almaty Vice-Chair Andrey Kryukov said Wednesday at a press conference where three athletes were among the five-member panel.
While Almaty makes legitimate claims that its plans that closely align with the IOC’s Agenda 2020 make it the ideal Winter Games host city, the former Kazakh capital city is not well-known by IOC members. IOC rules forbid its members to visit bid cities for personal evaluations.
“One time to see is better than 20 times to hear,” Kryukov conceded, understanding that his bid carried an additional burden in that regard.
What City would like to see host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games?
- Almaty (80%)
- Beijing (20%)
This has made Beijing the overwhelming favourite in the race, a safe and comfortable choice though Almaty is the better Agenda 2020 fit that calls for more sustainable and economically feasible plans.
What IOC members haven’t seen is the abundance of snow, existing winter venues and culture, and short travel distances – in stark contrast to Almaty’s Chinese rival.
Kryukov said “We have real winter sports venues… our town is a real winter town with a real winter sports culture, real nature and real mountains and real snow at the end.”
Kazakhstan’s Sochi 2014 bronze medal figure skater Denis Ten said appropriately “we’re not trying to change anything, we want to be ourselves.”
Indeed, Almaty’s bid slogan is “Keeping it real”, a not so subtle jab at Beijing’s offering that will rely on artificially made snow, converted venues from the 2008 Summer Games and a winter sports culture that has yet to develop.
Beijing’s ironic catchphrase is “Joyful Rendezvous upon Pure Ice and Snow”. There is no doubt that Chinese organizers will be able to cover the field of play in Zhangjiakou and other snow venue clusters with sufficient artificial snow, but the surrounding area in February could be various shades of brown.
Almaty’s backers boast that they have the most compact plan in 30 years, and point to a ski jump venue right on the edge of town for emphasis. With 9 of 13 venues to be already built, most still new from the 2011 Asian Games or under construction for the 2017 Universiade, they say the 2022 Games are “truly plug and play.”
Beijing’s plans leverage converted Summer Games venues such as the Bird’s Nest Stadium and Water Cube, but rely on remote clusters being linked by a planned high-speed rail line and questionable planned venues such as a ski jump that they insist they already need in a growing community. While the Games will be set against the iconic Great Wall of China – the legacies remain questionable.
Still, the IOC knows that Beijing, just as they did in 2008, have the resources and ability to safely and effectively deliver the Winter Games. And with the largest population on earth, economic opportunities for sponsors and sports federations are abundant. Beijing could become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games.
While Almaty doesn’t have the same economic influence, the oil-rich nation of Kazakhstan has backed up its economy with a USD$75 billion sovereign fund that it is willing to leverage to protect the delivery of the Games. Part of the country’s long-term plans are to be one of the top 30 global economies by 2050.
An Olympic Games would put Almaty and Kazakhstan on the world stage – a kind of marketing and branding that can’t be bought but is much needed by this young nation as it moves forward. Almaty first bid for the 2014 Winter Games but narrowly missed the short list.
Both cities have been criticized for pollution and poor human rights records – but Beijing has taken the brunt of the attacks because they failed to live up to promises made while bidding for the 2008 Games.
During meetings in Lausanne last month “Free Tibet” protesters interrupted a media presentation shouting slogans and waving banners. On Thursday a group representing activists from China, Tibet, Uyghur and Mongolia scolded the IOC for writing that it was confident that China would meet its obligations regarding human rights.
The IOC is faced with limited choices for these Games after the fallout of the overspent Sochi 2014 Games that reportedly cost $51 billion after the price of all infrastructure needed to build out the city was added. Prior to the race, 2018 bid runner-up Munich lost a referendum when taxpayers balked at the possible costs of organizing the Games. Along with Almaty and Beijing, four European cities entered bids but one-by-one, they withdrew.
First, Swedish politicians determined the cost of new venues in Stockholm were prohibitive, forcing the city to cancel its plans. Krakow in Poland lost a public referendum over the bid forcing its withdrawal. Lviv in Ukraine coud not continue bid plans after fighting broke out with Russian rebels in the country and finally Oslo, despite making the shortlist, opted out of the bid when it couldn’t secure the necessary government guarantees.
At the outset, Almaty and Beijing were considered warm-up bids for a possible 2026 Games, especially since both the 2018 and 2020 Olympics were both being staged in Asia.
Yet the IOC must make a choice on Friday. Do they choose the best fit with Agenda 2020, take a chance, and go with Almaty? Or, will they play it safe and settle with a sure thing – Beijing. This decision will have huge impact on the future of Olympic bidding and Agenda 2020.
If Almaty is not rewarded for keeping things real, there will be no incentive for future bid cities to roll out sustainable plans – and instead they may revert to the large London and Sochi-style projects in order to secure victory – alienating nations that simply cannot afford to play the game.
Almaty is set to present to the IOC at 10:35 local time in Kuala Lumpur Friday with Beijing to follow at 12:00. The final announcement of the winner will take place starting at 17:30.