The contest to host the 2022 winter Olympic Games may be a two-horse race, but promises to be one of the most fascinating ever. Kevin Roberts explains why, examining the background to the bidding battle and detailing each candidate through the eyes of its bid leader.
On July 31 the International Olympic Committee (IOC), meeting at its 128th Session in Kuala Lumpur, will vote to decide the host city for the 2022 winter Olympic Games.
Their choice isn’t vast, in fact they can only pick from two: Beijing, the Chinese capital which hopes to become the first city to stage both the summer and winter Games; and Almaty, formerly the capital of Kazakhstan, a nation with ambitions to become a major player on the global sports stage.
While choosing between only two candidate cities may, under some circumstances, make decision-making more straightforward, the vote in Malaysia will be scrutinised for what it tells us about where the Olympic Games stand today as a sports property, and could have a bearing on future hosting prospects for the event and bidding cities.
A negative focus had been placed on the winter Games when only three cities achieved applicate city status in the race for the 2018 Games – a contest won by Pyeongchang in South Korea – when there were seven applicant cities for 2014, eight for 2010 and six for 2006.
This time around, IOC members were left with the choice of only two possible 2022 hosts when Oslo, the capital of Norway and hosts of the 1952 winter Games, pulled out in October having been accepted as a candidate city. The decision was made by politicians who feared there was little public appetite for the spending necessary to deliver the Games.
Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s sports director, responded somewhat angrily.
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“For a country of such means, full of so many successful athletes and so many fanatical winter sports fans, it is a pity that Oslo will miss out on this great opportunity to invest in its future and show the world what it has to offer,” he said.
Dubi claimed the Norwegian government’s decision had been based on “half-truths and factual inaccuracies”; on the morning of the government vote, the country’s largest national daily newspaper, VG, printed an article listing the “demands” the IOC would make were Oslo to be successful in its bid, including a cocktail reception for the IOC with the King of Norway and the creation of special lanes for Olympic traffic.
Oslo had been the favourite to win, and had the best early IOC technical assessment. But for all the potential benefits of hosting the Games, the Norwegian government simply felt that the bill would be too high.
Scared by Cost
The decision of Oslo to pull out at such a late stage was a particularly hard blow for the IOC, which had already seen a succession of potential candidates step away from the 2022 bidding contest.
While Lviv, in western Ukraine, decided not to press ahead with its bid because of the unstable political conditions in the country, Krakow in southern Poland, Munich in Germany and the Swiss joint-bid of St. Moritz/Davos all ended their bid prospects at a relatively early stage after public votes went against them.
The IOC exists to effectively communicate the cost-versus-benefit analysis
Many of the public will have been put off by figures repeated in the mainstream media that the 2014 Games in Sochi cost a mammoth $51 billion – an eye-watering figure estimated by Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak, but one that needs to be understood with a number of caveats. Firstly, thanks to currency fluctuations, the figure was more like $43 billion when Sochi’s opening ceremony took place, while around a third of the cost was spent on public infrastructure – such as upgrading railways and roads – that needed to be carried out Olympics or not.
However, given the negativity that has attracted the winter Games from a hosting perspective, it comes as a surprise to many that the IOC has been so tardy in addressing the issue of “half-truths and factual inaccuracies” that so angered Dubi.
The IOC exists to deliver the best possible Olympic Games and effectively communicating the cost-versus-benefit analysis to potential host cities would seem an absolutely fundamental part of the role. The fallout around 2022 suggests that job simply wasn’t done effectively enough to make a case to nations where those who spend public money are ultimately accountable to the same public at the ballot box.
The result for 2022 has been a contest between very different bids from two cities in nations run by totalitarian regimes, and one that has pitted the economic might and proven organisational expertise of China against a smaller but no less ambitious nation in Kazakhstan, a country with a strong winter sport heritage and a clear vision of the role the Games can play in future national planning.
Complicating the picture somewhat has been the adoption, in December last year, of Agenda 2020, the IOC’s new strategic direction drawn up following suggestions from a raft of stakeholder groups under the direction of IOC president Thomas Bach.
In the area of bidding for IOC events, Agenda 2020 addressed the reluctance of candidates to throw their hats into the ring for 2022, and laid down a commitment for a closer consultation between the IOC and aspirant host in future bidding programmes. It also promised that cities would have more scope to shape the Games to their needs and capabilities as long as they could meet key core criteria, and placed a greater emphasis on sustainability.
Both Beijing and Almaty have made significant efforts to portray their bids as compliant to the IOC’s new strategic direction, despite their early incarnations being developed while Agenda 2020 was but a twinkle in Bach’s eye.
Winter Sport Culture
The 2022 contest, it appears, comes down to IOC members’ assessment of the balance between opportunity and risk. On one hand, Almaty has a sound technical bid which, because of the city’s location at the foot of a mountain range, is compact and would deliver the winter wonderland backdrop many observers believe the Games need to reinvigorate their visual branding.
It also benefits from having many of the facilities and much of the infrastructure already up and running, and a well-established winter sport culture.
Beijing’s bid offers different opportunities. The use of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the centrepiece of China’s hosting of the 2008 summer Olympic Games – for so long a white elephant, held up as an example of waste and poor legacy planning – for the opening and closing ceremonies ticks one box in a somewhat opportunistic fashion, but the reality is that the city of Beijing is 180-miles away from the mountains where the 2022 Games would take place. A high-speed railway will also have to be built to transport visitors to venues.
Observers, meanwhile, say there are significant environmental degradation issues to be considered in Beijing, while the city’s record on sustainability – known first-hand by the IOC following the 2008 Games – does not bear too much scrutiny.
Though Agenda 2020 was drawn up as the race for 2022 was nearing its conclusion, Olympic insiders say it will be fascinating to see how much, if any, of the thinking behind it is applied when IOC members make their decision.
While building a high-speed railway to reach newly-created venues may, on the face of it, seem bizarre, Agenda 2020 makes reference to investment in infrastructure being seen in the light of a country’s established long-term regional and national development objectives. Given its legacy plan to build a winter sports culture among its huge population – coupled with its established record of investing in major infrastructure projects – this is another box that Beijing may well tick.
One well-placed Olympic insider says the decision could well come down to risk.
“Having delivered on its promise to take the Games to China in 2008, the IOC doesn’t necessarily owe it anything from a political perspective and as the IOC is doing well financially, it doesn’t need the money that a Games in Beijing would guarantee,” he told SportBusiness International.
Almaty may not deliver as much revenue, but will be more in keeping with the traditional winter Games
“That leaves the IOC free to seriously consider Almaty, which may not deliver as much revenue, but will be more in keeping with the traditional winter Games in many ways.”
However, he also points out that with its currency tied to the devalued Russian rouble and with energy prices at a significant low, Kazakhstan may face short-term financial issues that mean Beijing is the safe option both politically and financially.
It’s one of the closest bidding races in recent memory.