When Kazakhstan first announced it would bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, some international observers didn’t quite take the nation’s proposal seriously.
They do now.
The vast, affluent yet still relatively obscure Central Asian nation’s quest to host the Games in seven years has deeply impressed Olympic watchers and led some to suggest that Kazakhstan’s city of Almaty could – and should – beat out Beijing, the other finalist city, for the honor of hosting.
Robert Livingstone, a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians and the creator and producer of GamesBids.com, is widely considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the Olympic bidding process. Livingstone told EdgeKz that while Almaty is not as internationally recognized as Beijing, the Central Asian city’s bid has significant advantages, perhaps most importantly its superior mountain terrain and natural snowfall.
“Almaty has great plans – definitely,” Livingstone said. “I was able to see Almaty first-hand and really it was a lot different than I had expected. You go there and look at their ski jump – which looks amazing – and you look at everything else and you say yes, they can do this. The IOC has to get over the fact that they’re just not as familiar with them. ”
The International Olympic Committee is scheduled to announce the winner on July 31 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Committee members are no longer allowed to visit prospective Olympic sites following a corruption scandal that enveloped the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Kazakhstan, buoyed by oil and gas wealth accrued since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has steadily marched toward respectability on the world stage, improving its health care system, universities and infrastructure – including the addition of multiple, world-class winter sports facilities in Almaty. The organizers of Almaty 2022, Kazakhstan’s official Olympic bidding organization, confidently profess the nation’s readiness for the games.
“Kazakhstan has been pursuing our Olympic dream for many years, in fact, this is our second bid for the Winter Games,” said Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. “We have invested heavily in winter sport … to increase our venue capacity and our hosting experience. Almaty 2022 represents a great step forward for the people of Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region; a region that has never hosted the Olympic Games. Almaty and all of Kazakhstan are looking forward to showing the world our hospitability, diversity and uniqueness.”
An increasingly modern city of 1.4 million, Almaty is surrounded by the towering peaks of the Tian Shan mountain range and receives annual snowfall in the hundreds of centimeters. Beijing, on the other hand, hardly gets any snow at all, meaning China would have to manufacture much of it. Livingstone characterized Beijing’s winter sports capabilities – at least at present – as “abysmal.”
“You don’t get a feel for the Winter Games at all,” he said.
By contrast, over the past two decades, Almaty has developed some of the best winter sports facilities in the world, allowing it to host the Asian Winter Games in 2011 and the Winter Universiade in 2017. The facilities include the famed Medeu Skating Oval, the Ak Bulak and Tabagan ski resorts, and the city is adding more. In fact, nine of the 13 venues needed to host the games already exist.
That’s in keeping with the IOC’s “Olympic Agenda 2020” reform program that calls for affordable games and maximum use of existing venues. International interest among potential host cities for the 2022 Olympic Games waned as costs of hosting have far exceeded potential benefits for the hosts. Some prospective European cities didn’t even bid. Hosting the Olympic Games has become viewed as folly for some nations, especially as they consider Greece, which spent millions to construct major venues to accommodate the 2004 summer Olympic Games. Today the venues in Athens sit largely unused and in major disrepair while Greece itself teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.
Kazakh officials insist that will not happen in Almaty. When the IOC adopted its 2020 agenda calling for efficiency in hosting the Games in February, Kazakhstan adjusted its bid accordingly, slashing the size of its planned Olympic Village that hosts the athletes, reconfiguring or combining still-to-be-constructed venues and altering its media accommodation plans, among other changes.
“These revisions, based on the Agenda 2020 reforms, allowed us to save over half a billion US dollars while at the same time making our concept – already the most efficient and compact in over thirty years – even more convenient, more efficient and better tailored for the athletes’ experience at the 2022 Winter Games,” said Andrey Kryukov, vice chairman of Almaty 2022.
Vladimir Smirnov, a four-time Olympian and Lillehammer 1994 gold medalist, is the other co-vice chairman of Almaty 2022. He said Kazakhstan’s bid is based on the “maximum use of real, existing venues.”
“Almost seventy percent already exist,” Smirnov said. “This means reduced costs, minimal environmental impact on our beautiful mountains and a great long-term, sustainable legacy for winter sports in Almaty.”
Livingstone, the American Olympic expert who traveled to Almaty to survey its ability to host the games, said Almaty’s plans would appear to be more in the spirit of the 2022 reform plan adopted by the IOC.
“They’ve already benefitting (using) the sports venues,” he said. “Their ski jump is probably among the best – if not the best – in the world right now. And it’s a culture that they are trying to get more involved in sport. To have that kind of sports infrastructure is always good for a society. I didn’t see too many white elephants.”
All venues included in Almaty’s bid are also slated within a 30-kilometer radius of the Olympic Village.
“We have made every effort to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the world’s greatest athletes,” Kryukov said. “Our concept guarantees short distances to venues so athletes can focus on the most important competitions of their lives, instead of enduring long travel times. Our concept guarantees ample sports and recreation facilities in all three villages to keep the athletes fit and relaxed. And perhaps most importantly for the athletes, Almaty 2022 guarantees two additional weeks testing period for all venues prior to the Games. This ensures true fair play for all athletes preparing for Almaty 2022. “
“From an athlete’s perspective, I think Almaty would be better,” Livingstone said bluntly. “It’s more wintry, there is more of a winter sport culture there and it is really compact.”
Former Olympic soccer player Jules Boykoff, now chairman of Pacific University’s Politics and Government Department in Portland, Oregon, and an author of two books on the Olympics, told EdgeKz that Kazakhstan has respectable odds of hosting the games.
“Almaty has a decent chance at the Games, especially after many of the strongest bids dropped out thanks to a lack of public support and a concern over funding,” Boykoff said. “The pros for Almaty are that it has reliable snow, strong support from higher-ups in government, and it is new Olympic terrain, as it has never hosted the Games before. The flip side of that pro is also a con – a lack of Olympic experience on the big stage could be viewed as a weakness.”
Boykoff also encouraged Kazakhstan to make improving its human rights record a goal to further distance its bid from Beijing’s. China’s human rights record came under intense scrutiny during its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
“Political leaders in Kazakhstan could, and I believe should, make meaningful strides on the human-rights front,” Boykoff said. “This is not only the ethical thing to do, but it would help differentiate the Almaty bid from Beijing’s.”
Kazakhstan has tried to reinforce the difference between its Olympic bid and Beijing’s with the use of a clever slogan: “Keeping it Real!” Keeping it real is a phrase first popularized in the United States to mean staying true to your roots. In Kazakhstan’s case, it means an Olympic bid that features real snow and mountains, as well as a commitment to not let costs spiral out of control.
“Our bid motto of “Keeping It Real!” is more than a simple expression – it is the fulfillment of a nation’s pride and ambition to aspire for more, to realize the dream of its people,” said Saken Mussaibekov, Kazakhstan’s vice minister of culture and sports.