Oslo has dropped out of the race to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, leaving only two bidders: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. And while some still count Beijing as the heavy favorite, Oslo’s refusal has raised hopes – and fears – in Kazakhstan that they will be chosen. “Almaty Almost Certain To Host 2022 Winter Olympics,” went one headline on the website sport.kz.
Since gaining independence two decades ago, Kazakhstan has become rich with oil and gas money, but its international profile remains stuck between “unknown” and “the home of Borat.” A big part of the government’s strategy to raise the country’s profile has been hosting big international events, including the 2011 Asian Winter Games and the 2017 Winter Universiade. But the Olympics would be by far the country’s biggest coup.
“After holding the Games in Almaty it will no longer necessary to explain what and where is Kazakhstan,” said Aydar Makhmetov, a spokesman for the country’s sovereign wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, which has taken a lead role in promoting the Olympic bid. Winning the bid, he said in an interview October 7, “would forever fix Almaty on the world map and would be a powerful impulse for the development not just of the city, but of all Kazakhstan. This is a goal that can unite the entire nation in a single patriotic impulse.”
He argued that Kazakhstan’s position as a “Eurasian” country would give it an advantage over Beijing. The International Olympic Committee likes to geographically rotate Olympic hosts and likely doesn’t want another Asian games after Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Games and Pyeongchang, South Korea, hosts the 2018 Winter Games. “I don’t think the IOC is burning with desire to give Asia another winter games in 2022,” Makhmetov said. “From that point of view we are a new territory for them. Not quite Asia, but not Europe. And this can be an undisputed advantage for us.”
While probably still the dark horse, Almaty does have other advantages over Beijing, as well: it has reliably wintry weather and will already have many of the facilities it needs after hosting the 2017 Universiade. And the facilities will be spread over a much more compact area than Beijing’s proposal, an IOC priority.
But ironically, Kazakhstan’s big breakthrough on the world stage could come amid increasing cynicism about massive events like the Olympics or the World Cup. Instead of showcases of national pride, they increasingly look like showy, vulgar displays by rich, authoritarian countries.
And there have been plenty of skeptical voices from Kazakhstan about hosting the games. One commentary on the website today.kz by the editor of the magazine Sport Review, Dmitry Mostovoy, noted that according to Norwegian press reports the IOC made a comically outlandish host of demands of Oslo, including a cocktail reception with the king of Norway and that the city’s traffic lights be synchronized to facilitate IOC traffic. “For the Norwegians, national pride and common sense was more important” than getting the games, Mostovoy wrote.
“Recently, developed countries are more and more often declining to put on these kinds of massive events. In these countries the proper attitude toward the state budget, the proper attitude toward the people prevails,” wrote prominent blogger Galym Baituk. “As a patriot of Kazakhstan I support the friendship of our country with China. And so I support Beijing’s candidacy to host the Olympics. Everyone says that this is a high-profile event to promote the country. International businessmen who want to invest in our country already know everything they need to know. So what kind of image do we want to promote?”
The 2022 host will be chosen at the IOC session in Kuala Lumpur next July.