Nick Butler

A triple-headed race for the 2020 Olympics, International Olympic Committee (IOC) Presidency and new sporting slot on the programme seemed basically all anyone talked about when I started at insidethegames in the summer of 2013, with speculation, predictions and idle gossip dominating virtually every conversation.

It is amazing how comparatively low profile the 2022 Winter Olympic race is, and, aside for a few criticisms of human rights in both bidding nations there has been virtually no coverage of the campaign in mainstream media.  

Except for the mass of suited and booted Almaty and Beijing employees littering the hotel lobbies of Lausanne last week, few people attending the IOC Executive Board meeting in the lakeside city seemed that bothered either. It was definitely no higher than third on the conversational priority list behind the futures of Messrs Blatter and Vizer and their respective organisations, a reflection of the turbulent sporting political times we live in but also of the lower profile of winter sport, and of this race in particular.

That said, there was an impressive turnout of 85 of 101 IOC members for the Candidate City Briefing, indicating some sort of three-line whip had been issued by its President, Thomas Bach. It was disappointing that three of the few members associated with winter sport were absent.

While Prince Albert of Monaco, since in Baku at the European Games, surely had a good excuse, I’m not sure if IOC Athletes’ Commission members Ole Einar Bjørndalen and Hayley WIckenheiser did also, particularly as it is currently the off-season in their respective sports of biathlon and ice hockey.  

Anyway, there is certainly a feeling the IOC are trying to rush through the 2022 race as quickly as possible so they can focus on the more interesting affair that is the developing 2024 race. Heading into the Briefing there was a clear narrative about how the earlier race is shaping, with Beijing, the Chinese capital bidding so soon after hosting a Summer Games in 2008, favourite in the eyes of virtually everyone.

For a few weeks last year, as European contenders limped from one setback to the next, it appeared Almaty was perhaps in front, but from around August’s Summer Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, the Chinese have flexed their muscles and, with the Kazakhs largely inactive until the dawn this year, have seemingly powered ahead.

Members of both bid teams pictured with the IOC outside the Olympic Museum after the Briefing ©IOC
Members of both bid teams from Almaty and Beijing pictured with the IOC outside the Olympic Museum in Lausanne after the Candidate City Briefing ©IOC

Beijing’s bid is based around security and reassurance, a reliable choice which will ensure the IOC few sleepless nights. Their weakness is their lack of snow and winter charm, as suffering from air pollution and distance between the venue hubs.

Almaty, a polar opposite bid, has a truly compact and picturesque venue plan, but has struggled to overcome th e perception that there is lack of Government support. That has cast doubts over the fulfilment of political and economic pledges. The IOC Evaluation Commission Report, meanwhile, highlighted severe doubts over their ability to have the required number of hotel rooms.

My impression after speaking to people after the Briefing was that, on the whole, not a whole lot has changed.

Yes, the presence of Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov and a pre-recorded message played to the members by President Nursultan Nazarbayev clearly went down well. Massimov, with a light-style and occasional touches of humour, was considered something of a “rock star”, and has certainly gone a long way towards ending Governmental concerns. It was exactly what was required and the highlighting of their strong oil reserves and $75 billion (£49 billion/€67 billion) sovereign wealth fund reassured many members.

Members appeared less convinced about other elements. Some said that the financial reassurances means hotel rooms can be resourced despite the concerns, and others reminded us of how in countries with a let’s say, more “authoritarian” governing style, a “national will” to build hotels will override any commercial or economic concerns. But others cast doubt on the commitments, and it is worth remembering how hotel rooms have been a problem for Summer and Winter bids in the past. It is an issue the IOC take seriously.

Karim Massimov, pictured attending the Opening Ceremony of the Baku 2015 European Games after leaving Lausanne, was the ace in Almaty's presentational pack ©Getty Images
Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov, pictured attending the Opening Ceremony of the Baku 2015 European Games after leaving Lausanne, was the ace in Almaty's presentational pack ©Getty Images

Almaty’s presentation was also seen by some as not technical enough, good on general pledges but less so on specifics and substance. With environmental and financial experts on their eight-person panel, you could tell simply by looking at the Beijing bid team how they would delve into greater details.

Several IOC members said publicly afterwards how the race had now narrowed, and we will see to what extent. I expect the IOC is determined not to embarrass Kazakhstan and to keep them happy enough to launch another bid for the Olympics in the near future. Yet, to get more than a respectable number of votes, more than a third or so, I would say, would still require a greater change of momentum.

As an IOC member said to me in Lausanne, there are several “wise old heads” in the Olympic Movement who exercise plenty of sway, and these wise old heads all seem to be pointing towards Beijing.

There was some criticism of the bid, in the closed meeting between members, Federations and the Evaluation Commission certainly, with a member telling me of how several accused the Commission of underestimating the journey times between the three venues of Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou.

But there were several lines in the Report released on June 1 which were very telling. “Overall, the [Beijing] budget appears to be well thought-out and presents a viable financial plan,” it was written.

“Upside potential on marketing revenues, strong Government support and experience gained from hosting the 2008 Games suggest that the degree of financial risk should be relatively low.”

In comparison, “Kazakhstan has limited experience with complex high-value marketing programmes relating to sporting events.”

Fresh from the difficulties of Games encountered bySochi 2014 and currently being faced by Rio 2016 and Pyeongchang 2018, the IOC remains keen to avoid giving itself any more sleepless nights. Going to China would by and large avoid that and allow them to sle ep soundly in their beds at night.

The question of whether it conforms to the zeal of Agenda 2020 is less obvious. Beijing claim that it does, with “sustainability” one of their big buzzwords. But bid officials have this rather irritating habit of telling you things as if it is unequivocal truth, repeating the same lecture every time the question is asked, when really what they are claiming is highly contentious.

Supposed journey times of 20 minutes to Yanqing and 50 minutes to Zhangjiakou is one example of this - others now think around 90 minutes is more accurate to travel to the latter venue hub - but there are many others.

Air pollution is just one of many issues where Beijing have repeatedly made bold and some would say unrealistic insistances that action will be taken ©AFP/Getty Images
Air pollution is just one of many issues where Beijing have repeatedly made bold - and some would say unrealistic - claims that action will be taken ©AFP/Getty Images

The claim the Games would attract 300 million new winter sporting participants, for instance, has essentially been plucked from the air. Would they? Let’s say they organise the Games and successfully produce all the snow required from local stores. What next? Are they really going to keep doing this, for ever, to ensure a sporting legacy? The plan has zero sustainability and would pose grave questions for the IOC’s commitment to practising what it preaches. The budget is low, partly because the multi-billion dollar high speed railway is omitted from it as it was planned anyway,

Yet from what I understand, no one really probed either the bid team or the Evaluation Commission to much extent. Even those athletes who were present made few critical questions and I wonder how honest the “wise old heads” would permit the Evaluation Commission to have been anyway…

And you could say much the same about the Chinese commitments to reducing pollution. Yes, the rhetoric is good, but they said the same before Beijing 2008 and it has got much worse since then.

As I have made clear, my instinct is that little will really change between now and Kuala Lumpur when the vote is due to take place at the IOC Session on July 31. But, if it is to, Almaty clearly need to make this point about their bid being the only one to reflect Agenda 2020 to as many IOC members as possible over and over and over again, and getting President Nazarbayev to the decisive Session in the Malaysian capital to tell them personally would certainly make this point more viable.

The Chinese, in turn, need to quietly whisper in their ear about how good recent Olympic Games in Beijing and Nanjing were and that they alone can be trusted on to get the job done.

Even with their shortcomings, I feel something major would have to happen over coming weeks for this to not prove enough to a second Olympics Games in a generation to be awarded to Beijing.