The world’s most populous nation against a new kid on the block. A global capital that hosted an Olympics just a few years ago against a city which many people may not be able to find on a map. A Chinese region with few big mountains and little natural snow against a former Soviet winter sports resort surrounded by towering peaks and plenty of real snow.
Such is the study in contrasts between the two contenders for the 2022 Winter Games: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The International Olympic Committee will be faced with two starkly different choices when it selects the host city on Friday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, culminating a race that began with six candidates but wound up with just two after a series of withdrawals.
While Beijing has been seen as the big favorite, Almaty impressed IOC members at a presentation in Switzerland in June and the contest is now considered closer than many had expected.
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“A lot of the members were pretty agreeably surprised to see there were now two candidates in the race,” Canadian member Dick Pound told The Associated Press.
Beijing remains the city to beat — largely because of China’s geopolitical might.
“There is no question the Chinese are still the favorites,” Gian-Franco Kasper, a veteran IOC member from Switzerland who is president of the international ski federation, told the AP. “It is an open race, but in principle most people believe the Chinese automatically are the favorites.”
“Why?” said Kasper, who also heads the association of winter Olympic sports bodies. “You know. China.”
A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine the Olympic vote would come down to Beijing and Almaty, neither of which are well known for hosting major winter sports events. But they were the only ones left after four European cities — including Oslo and Stockholm — pulled out for political or financial reasons.
Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Olympics and is seeking to become the first city to host both summer and winter games, is viewed by many IOC members as a safe choice, one that can be relied upon because of China’s experience, manpower and political will.
Almaty — the former capital of Kazakhstan, a central Asian country which became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union — is a lesser-known quantity, but one that offers a Winter Games setting and atmosphere along with a compact layout.
“I think we know if we go to Beijing, it will be a success,” Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said in an interview. “On the other hand, Almaty is a winter sports country where we know that we have snow and ice and everything needed.”
Beijing says the games would help develop a winter sports market for more than 300 million people in northern China — a strong selling point for the IOC’s commercial interests.
Almaty scored points with its presentation in Lausanne in June, showing images of deep, natural snow. Almaty’s slogan, “Keeping it Real,” is a not-so-subtle dig at China’s reliance on man-made snow.
Beijing insists it has sufficient water supplies for snow-making and can provide excellent conditions for ski competitions.
“It can be done with artificial snow, there is no question,” Kasper said. “In cross-country, both (natural and artificial snow) are possible. In ski jumping, it doesn’t make any difference. In Alpine skiing, if you look at our World Cup races, we ski more or less 100 percent on artificial snow, because the snow is more compact.”
Almaty says 70 percent of its facilities are already in place and all venues are within a 30-kilometer (18-mile) radius. Beijing plays up its use of venues from the 2008 Olympics, including the “Bird’s Nest” stadium and “Water Cube” arena.
China’s snow and sliding events would be at venues in Yangqing and Zhangjiakou, 60 and 140 kilometers (40 and 90 miles) outside Beijing. A planned high-speed rail line to Zhangjiakou is supposed to cut travel time to 50 minutes.
Both countries have been assailed for their human rights records. Human Rights Watch issued a report this week criticizing Kazakhstan’s “hostility and abuse” toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. China has been involved in a recent crackdown on rights lawyers.
“This is a clash of human rights abuse titans,” Minky Worden, global initiatives director at Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview, urging the IOC to make sure the winner upholds new clauses on human rights protections in the Olympic Charter and host city contract.
With the majority of IOC members not coming from winter sports countries, Friday’s vote will be influenced by geopolitics, sentiment and other factors.
“We vote with our hearts,” Heiberg said, “not with our heads.”