The long race to host the 2022 Winter Olympics is in the final straight. The marathon that began more than two years ago for those cities taking part will finally come to an end on July 31 in Kuala Lumpur with a vote by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Like all the best sporting contests, there has been plenty of unpredictability. Heavily favoured contenders have not lasted the pace, leaving Almaty and Beijing as the last two in the race. It is not an outcome experts would have predicted at the start.
No one knows who will cross the finish line first. The ballot is secret and those voting rightly don’t reveal their intentions. But Beijing, of course, remains the favourite. It is a great world city, which recently hosted a successful Summer Games.
The fact, however, that there remains such uncertainty over the result of the vote underlines Almaty’s extraordinarily strong performance. A bid seen very much at the beginning as rank outsider has won praise and friends for what it can offer the Olympic Movement and sport.
Such has been the change in attitude that no one who has been following the process closely should be shocked if the underdog comes out on top or be concerned that Almaty would not stage first-class Games. With most venues already operating or being built and detailed plans in place for the rest of the infrastructure for 2022, Almaty is far further in preparedness than Beijing or many other cities that have been chosen to host major sporting events.
There should be no surprise, of course, over such advanced preparations. Almaty is already a major winter sports centre. It successfully hosted the Asian Winter Games in 2011 and is preparing to welcome in 2017 thousands of student athletes, officials and visitors to the Winter Universiade – the biggest winter sport event outside the Olympics.
Visitors and athletes to Almaty will find not only great facilities and plenty of snow but also a modern, vibrant and fascinating city situated in an area of spectacular natural beauty. It was this mix of qualities that senior IOC figures said made them look at Almaty’s bid in a much more positive way than they had anticipated.
It is also why Almaty and Kazakhstan will be the winners no matter which way the vote goes in Malaysia. If the city wins the right to host the 2022 Games, there will be huge excitement across our sports-mad nation. This passion for winter sports, along with the detailed planning which has already taken place and the commitment at the city and national levels, will ensure that the 2022 Games will be memorable. It will be a deserved win and a result which fits well with Olympic ideals and ambitions.
But while there will be real disappointment if Almaty is passed at the finish line, the contest has brought major and lasting benefits for the city and country. The strength of the bid has put the city and Kazakhstan very much on the Olympic map. This won’t be the last time that Kazakhstan throws its hat in the ring for major sporting events. Thanks to all the hard work that has gone into presenting the 2022 case, future proposals will have an even stronger base.
Favourable comments from surprised IOC members also point to a broader benefit. It is clear the bid – and the hard evidence which supported it – has helped bring people up to date about Kazakhstan. The more people hear and see for themselves what the country has to offer and what’s been achieved, the more they understand this is a modern country with a huge amount to offer that is making its way successfully in the world. It’s why the 2022 bid was such a strong sign of confidence in our country’s future.