Kazakhstan’s Olympic moment
On Feb. 4, 2022, the Winter Olympics will begin, but it’s up to the International Olympic Committee to decide where the opening ceremonies will take place. The options have been narrowed down to Beijing or Almaty, Kazakhstan - not an ideal choice. Both cities are located in autocracies with bitter human rights records, while one country, China, has a chronic, hazardous smog problem that peaks during the mostly snow-less winter months. It’s hard to see how the final vote, scheduled for a July 30 meeting of the IOC in tropical Kuala Lumpur, will be anything but a damper.
Not so long ago, the IOC thought it would have more attractive options. Oslo and Krakow were still in the running for 2022 as late as a year ago, and it was widely believed that one of them would win, bringing winter sports back to Europe. (Pyeongchang, South Korea will host the 2018 Games) But amid the euro crisis, and facing angry taxpayers forced to deal with austerity, politicians blanched at the $51 billion price tag for last year’s Sochi Games. That was an aberration - but only by degree. Some recent Games have stayed in the relatively reasonable $1 billion range (Torino 2006, for example), several others - such as Athens 2004, which cost $11 billion (and is sometimes credited with sending Greece over the financial precipice) - clearly did not.
In that sense, price has become both an ethical and an existential issue for the IOC. Is there a way to lower the costs of the Games such that they are attractive to countries where citizens have an actual say in whether they host them? And while there’s no obvious answer to that question, it seems clear enough, based on the six volumes that contain the bids, that Kazakhstan offers the better chance of finding out.
Almaty’s greatest advantage, in an economic sense, is geography. Unlike the Beijing proposal, which is apportioned between three mostly snowless cities spread along a roughly 100 mile axis, Almaty’s bid is the most compact in 30 years, with all events contained within an 18.5 mile radius from the Olympic village.
That’s possible, in turn, because of two other factors: size (or, rather, lack of it) and culture. Almaty is a relatively small town that already has a thriving winter sports sector. Thus, of the 14 competition venues needed for the 2022 Games, eight are already built and in use, and three are under construction for the 2017 Winter Universiade (an international winter sports competition). That leaves Almaty needing to build only three venues. (Sochi, by contrast, had no venues at the time it was selected for the Games.)
Beijing, by contrast, has almost no tradition of winter sports. In recent years, it’s become a short-track skating power, but in other key winter Olympics sports - skiing, hockey, sledding - it lacks venues, public interest and climate. (Beijing and Zhangjiakou are arid - and polluted.) Thus, Beijing not only needs to build six of 12 competition venues. (Fewer total than Almaty, due to the fact that they’ll be used for multiple events.) It also needs to go to the trouble and expense of clearing undeveloped land from mountainsides in Zhangjiakou and Yanqing (a third city) for ski slopes, cross-country tracks and other events. (That’s not only expensive, it’s environmentally damaging.) Almaty, by contrast, not only has ski slopes - they’ve already hosted international competitions on them.
What will all of this cost? In one sense, nobody knows. Olympics are notoriously more expensive than what was budgeted (and that’s one reason so many countries won’t bid for them). For example, London’s initial bid for the 2012 Games estimated total costs at $3.94 billion; that ballooned to $14.3billion by the opening ceremonies. Likewise, Sochi’s $51 billion Games was budgeted for $12 billion. Thus, Almaty’s proposed budget - including infrastructure - of $3.495 billion should be taken with a grain of salt. But even greater skepticism should be reserved for Beijing’s $3.068 billion bid - especially when held up against the more than $40 billion it spent on the 2008 Summer Olympics. That, alone, should give the IOC pause as it considers how to award the 2022 Games.
Needless to say, judging Olympics bids on their comparative honesty only highlights how much reform the IOC still needs to undertake. The inflated costs of Sochi weren’t just related to infrastructure, after all, but rather to massive graft. Hopefully, Kazakhstan’s bid will prove different, but who knows?
But for now, Almaty - a true winter sports destination - deserves its chance to make a case for small cities everywhere. That might be the only way to bring some sanity to an Olympics enterprise on the verge of spending itself into irrelevance.
*The author is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.
by Adam Minter