The beauty and excitement of sport is that the favourite does not always win. Many of our most magical sporting memories are of upsets when the underdog overcomes the odds to succeed.
But when analysed, there are often signs of why the surprise occurred. The outsider may have had overlooked strengths or the favourite weaknesses which made the result less certain. As the race to host the 2022 Winter Olympics enters its last month, there are now signs it may not be the foregone conclusion many predicted.
When the bidding process began two years ago, Almaty was seen very much as the rank outsider among the cities wanting to host the games. Even when the contest became just a two-horse race between Beijing and Kazakhstan’s largest city in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, the Chinese capital was considered the red-hot favourite.
But it is a mark of just what a good case Almaty has put together and the hard work that has gone into presenting it that few now think there can only be one winner. Following the behind closed doors technical presentation of the two bids in Lausanne, Switzerland, earlier in June, Olympic chiefs from across the world said how impressed they were about the strength of Almaty’s case and predicted a close vote on July 31.
Canadian IOC (International Olympic Committee) member Dick Pound told the AP he was “very, very agreeably surprised” by Almaty’s presentation. Australian Vice President John Coates forecast “a close vote which I didn’t think originally.”U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Larry Probst said the Almaty team “drove home the message ‘keeping it real.’ That was all about snow versus making snow. I think that resonates.”
It is this contrast which will be on the minds of those who will take part in the secret vote in Kuala Lumpur at the end of July. Beijing may be a great world city and have hosted a highly successful Summer Olympics in 2008. But it is also a city – and a country – without much of a tradition of winter sports and where not just the venues but the snow would have to be produced from scratch.
Almaty could, and did, present a very different case. IOC members heard about a city cradled by snow-covered mountains where winter sports were very much part of the local culture.
It meant that nine of the 13 games venues – like the world famous Medeo skating rink – already exist, with all of them within a 30-kilometre radius of the city. To underline the contrast with the problems its rival will have in producing snow-covered slopes, IOC Vice President Craig Reedie joked that Almaty made good use of “pictures of people climbing through three feet of snow.”
Beijing talked rightly about the success of the 2008 Summer Olympics and the legacy use of its venues. But Almaty pointed in turn to having hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games and staging the Winter Universiade – the largest winter sports event outside the Olympics itself – in two years’ time. There will be plenty of experience in Kazakhstan of the meticulous planning and hard work needed to make a major sporting event a success.
IOC members will also have on their minds the Olympic movement’s commitment to stage less-extravagant games in the future following the estimated $40 billion spent on Beijing and $50 billion on Sochi. It is this cost which scared off many of the original candidates.
Against this measure, Almaty also has an advantage. The use of existing venues means not just a compact event with travel between accommodations and events reduced for athletes, officials and spectators – another of the IOC’s wishes – but that the cost will be far more manageable. In fact, the AP said Almaty’s budget for infrastructure and operations is around half the $5 billion cost of the high-speed rail link needed between Beijing and its new skiing and bobsled venues. As its article reminded readers, that’s not counting the financial – and environmental – cost of creating slopes of artificial snow.
Staging any Olympics is, of course, a major and complex event. It needs total commitment not just from the host city but also the host country. It was why it was important that the IOC technical committee heard in person from Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov, who was in Lausanne, and from President Nursultan Nazarbayev by video message, about the government’s full support for the Almaty bid.
This included financial guarantees, if needed, from the country’s $75 billion National Fund. It also helped underline the role that a 2022 games would play in Kazakhstan’s wider ambitions to both drive economic growth and increase the country’s attractions as a winter sports destination for visitors from near and far.
Kazakhstan’s astonishing natural beauty is one of the country’s greatest, and so far, undiscovered assets. A Winter Olympics would put the global spotlight on what not just winter sports enthusiasts but leisure visitors of all kinds can enjoy within our large borders.
Beijing remains, of course, a very strong bid, but as we have learned many times, the outcome in sports is never guaranteed. The last few weeks have shown just how far Almaty has come in the race to host the 2022 games because of the appeal of a “real” games. The momentum is with Almaty. Whether it is enough to close the gap in the closing weeks, we will learn on July 31.