winter.olympicsBeijing and Almaty made their final bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics with China’s basketball legend Yao Ming countering Kazakhstan’s prime minister in the battle to sway decision-makers ahead of Friday’s vote.

China, because of its political and economic clout, is the strong favourite in the smallest contest for a Winter Olympics in four decades. But the Kazakh city, Almaty, has gained ground in recent months with its compact Games plan and the promise of “real” snow while most of China’s will be machine made.

Eighty-six International Olympic Committee (IOC) members will vote in a secret ballot on Friday in Kuala Lumpur after final presentations by the Asian rivals.

“Both candidate cities, we wish all the very best for tomorrow and thank them already now for their great contribution to the Olympic movement,” IOC president Thomas Bach said as he opened the special session late Thursday. 

Former Houston Rockets centre Yao will be one of the stars of the Chinese show for the IOC on Friday, promising to spread the appeal of winter sports in the rising world power.

Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Olympics, wants to become the first city to stage the summer and winter Games. 

“We offer the proven capability to host the Games and much more: the chance for winter sports to reach millions of new people and grow into the future,” said Beijing’s mayor Wang Anshun.

Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Karim Massimov will lead the oil-rich former Soviet republic’s call to be allowed to claim a place on the world map. Almaty is making its second bid to get the Winter Olympics.

“I’m talking to IOC members, I strongly believe we have a good chance to make it happen,” Massimov said.

– Beijing favourites –

Six cities were originally in the race to follow 2018 hosts Pyeongchang in South Korea.

But after Russia spent more than $50 billion to stage the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Oslo, Stockholm, Krakow in Poland and Lviv in Ukraine all withdrew because of cost fears and local politics.

Beijing is considered a ‘safe bet’ by IOC members because of its experience from 2008.

Some venues from 2008, including the Bird’s Nest national stadium, will be used again.

China’s weakness is the distance between venues — Zhangjiakou which will host nordic skiing and ski jumping is 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Beijing — and its lack of snow.

All of Almaty’s venues are within 30 kilometres (18 miles) of the former capital.

Almaty which has plentiful snow and dramatic mountain scenery around the city has also made veiled digs at China’s reliance on artificial snow flakes, with its campaign entitled “Keeping It Real.”

IOC president Thomas Bach told AFP ahead of the vote that there are two “excellent” candidates and that he was not disappointed that there are only two cities left.

It is the smallest number of cities in the final vote since Lake Placid in the United States won the 1980 Winter Games unopposed.

“We had just three candidates for the last Winter Games. Due to geographical reasons there are only three continents in the world that can organise a Winter Games,” Bach said.

Bach has passed reforms aiming to bring down the cost and administrative burden of hosting the Games as well as making them more environmentally friendly.

After the largesse of Sochi, Almaty has estimated a budget of $3.6 billion and said 70 percent of the venues are already built. Beijing has said it will spend $3.06 billion, but that does not include an estimated $5 billion for a high speed train from Beijing to Zhangjiakou.

Both countries have human rights records that have been condemned by activist groups. But human rights have not played a major role in the public debate for 2022.

The announcement of the winner will be made about 0930 GMT on Friday. – Agence France-Presse

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