LAUSANNE, Switzerland—In the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Evaluation Commission report on the 2022 Winter Olympics bids from Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China, the commission seemed to recognize the strengths of Almaty’s bid: a reasonable budget, a compact Games which spectators and athletes could easily navigate, a development opportunity for a country which has emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union, and most importantly for ski enthusiasts, real snow.
But despite that, Almaty was seen as lagging behind the momentum of the Beijing bid, which relied on some summer 2008 Olympic infrastructure and had the backing of the second-largest government budget in the world (China ranks just behind the United States).
However, after a day of bid presentations, many saw that Almaty had closed some of its gap, playing up its natural advantages while addressing the concerns that had been previously raised.
“It was really impressive to see how both cities had embraced the reforms of Olympic Agenda 2020 just six months after the recommendations were unanimously approved by the IOC,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement released to the media. “… Almaty plans to develop a traditional winter sports centre, and leave the lasting legacy of transforming the region.”
There may be hope yet for awarding cross-country skiing medals in the homeland of Vladimir Smirnov, the second-most winning skier of all time with 30 World Cup victories and an Olympic gold medal.
Almaty might not win the bid, but it is at least putting up a good fight. Another plus? The more open responses to questions, as opposed to the constant deflection and doublespeak delivered with a smile by the Chinese, was likely to win some over.
The Almaty committee assuaged concerns about how the government would deliver the games and secure the budget. Then they went on the attack, making fun of Beijing’s weaknesses in their own responses. Are these meetings a game changer for the Almaty bid?
Putting the Finance and Stability Concerns to Rest
In the Evaluation Commission report, published a week ago, the commission spent much more time discussing what it saw as Almaty’s challenges and shortcomings. In comparison, Beijing seemed like a safer bet, with the economic power and near-totalitarian control of the Chinese government able to solve all problems.
“The site conditions and private land ownership could add complexity and cost to roadway improvements and construction of base areas at the Tabagan and Almatau venues” and would be a challenge in Almaty, the commission noted.
In Beijing? Private landowners are no problem. As was seen in the leadup to the Beijing 2008 Games, the government can simply force them to leave.
“Completion of the sliding track 16 months before the Games would present a challenge in terms of homologation, testing and familiarisation,” the commission noted.
In Beijing? Venues don’t exist yet for any of the winter sports, because the mountian cluster is three hours away and doesn’t actually have snow. But no worries, the big Chinese government will make it happen.
“Changing market conditions could impact securing private investors and developers though the Olympic Villages are underwritten by public authorities,” the commission wrote of Almaty, worrying that the government simply wouldn’t be able to deliver on construction of the Games or provision of housing.
In Beijing? Don’t worry, the government controls the market.
Despite obvious environmental, human rights, health, and climate problems, the Beijing bid seemed to be rolling towards an inevitable victory in the race to host the 2022 Olympics. Snow wasn’t at the top of the IOC’s priority list; stability was.
But when the Almaty bid committee landed in Lausanne for their final presentation to IOC members before the voting begins on July 31st in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, they had learned to speak the IOC’s language. Sending none other than the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Karim Massimov, the Almaty 2022 group seems to have inspired more confidence than many were expecting.
“The vision is here,” Almaty 2022 Vice Chairman Andrey Kryukov told the press of the financing concerns after the committee finished presenting to IOC Members. “I think the Prime Minister convinced them fully, because after the presentation we didn’t have any questions from the members [about this].”
In a press conference later in the day, when pressed by journalists including several from China, Kriukov doubled down on the assertion that allegations that Kazakhstan could not support the $1.72 billion budget were unfair.
“The budget of the games is very efficient,” he said. “All – all – what is mentioned as budget is related to the Games. We count every cent that we will spend in the next five years. This is 0.3% of our GDP. To let you understand, this is not such an issue for our budget. Our economy is stable and strong. We have a national stabilization fund of $75 billion. And it is growing.”
Regarding concerns that Almaty couldn’t deliver enough accommodation to serve a large sporting event, the bid committee tried to put this to rest as well.
“According to the reports summary, it’s not a weakness, it’s a risk,” Kriukov said in the press conference. “All bids have their own risks, first of all. We have guaranteed what we need to be guaranteed. We guaranteed and we signed it. It is jointly guaranteed by the government, the city, and the Olympic committee. We have guaranteed all necessary accommodation, 24,000 rooms. Plus another 18,000 will be provided for visitors.”
Efforts such as these seemed convincing to at least some of the IOC members.
“A year ago we said the Kazakhs are not really organized,” International Ski Federation President Gian Franco Kasper told the AP’s Steve Wilson. “They really did something now. They did a good job. They were very prepared. It’s too early to say but it’s going to be close.”
The Important Stuff: Sports
As President Bach emphasizes his Agenda 2020, a 40-point platform for progress that spurred his election, every time he goes out – Almaty noticed, and has begun to emphasize more how their Games vision fits to Agenda 2020.
“We want to provide the Olympic movement with an extraordinary new concept for a Winter Games, which is sensible, affordable, and sustainable,” Kriukov said. “So essentially we have a shared vision, and that is making Agenda 2020 come alive. Almaty 2022 has one of the most efficient Games concepts in over 20 years. No venue is more than a 33 k radius from the Olympic Village, and 70% of our venues are already ready.”
And they also emphasized that 2022 should not be is not just a great Olympic Games, but a great winter Games.
“We don’t jump to the future,” Kriukov said in responding to a question about whether Kazakhstan has enough experience hosting big sports events. “We consistently step by step move forward. We hosted the 2011 Asian Games. We hosted plenty of events. Winter sports events. Don’t forget, Almaty is a winter sports city. It is created by nature. Our geographical location is that. In our presentation today we showed that we are created for winter sport.”
Created by nature? That’s a jab at Beijing, whose bid committee answered questions about snow and sliding sports not by boasting of snow, but by boasting of water that they could turn into snow.
With the new rules that IOC members are not allowed to visit candidate cities before the voting, in order to reduce the chance of bribes, special treatment, and corruption, as well as to reduce the cost to candidate cities, few have ever seen the mountain areas that Beijing is proposing to use for winter sports. Online data show that these areas receive about a meter of snowfall, annual, in total.
By contrast, Kazakhstan really does have snow. The Games would feature two clusters, but the mountain cluster would be easily reachable from the city. For the first time in several Olympic cycles, the Games would be more or less integrated between stadium and snow sports.
Almaty is also set to host the 2017 World University Games. Kriukov said that this would provide an opportunity to train the whole 2022 staff, with five years available to continue fine-tuning anything that doesn’t go perfectly.
(For those worried that the conditions weren’t exactly ideal at 2015 Nordic World Junior and U23 Championships, here’s more information: the nordic combined and jumping events would be held at that venue, while cross-country skiing and biathlon would be moved to other existing venues further into the mountains.)
And in another appeal to Agenda 2020, as well as to the world’s concerns that the budget and construction required to host a Games bid is something that no city would actually want, Kriukov emphasized that the bid committee did not plan to extensively change the host city – they didn’t have to.
“This presentation was the best opportunity for the bid committee to show all benefits which we provide for the Olympic movement,” Kriukov said. “… It improved knowledge for the people of our country and our city of Almaty. It’s a great city, I say again that this is a real, real winter sports city. It is created by nature, and we don’t like to change our city simply to fit the Games. We fit the Games into our city.”
Denis Ten, a bronze medalist in figure skating, underscored that point, while adding that from an athlete perspective the compact nature of the Almaty Games was a huge plus.
“Our slogan is keeping it real, because we don’t want to change the city, we want to bring the Olympic Games into the city,” he said. “As an Olympian I also have some experience and some things to say regarding our vision. I have to admit that so far it looks very impressive, very convenient. Travel times will not exceed 30 minutes… As an Olympian I can assure you that Almaty is one of the really ideal places to host the Olympic Games. The city was born to be a winter sports capital.”
And finally, there’s the aspirational story of a young country hoping to show its strength and culture to the whole world through hosting the biggest sports event on the globe.
“We work very hard to be better, day by day,” Kriukov said. “You have the possibility to see that for us, today, it is a big honor to stay on this stage and in front of the IOC members. 15 years ago maybe nobody could imagine this. But we are here today.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.