Despondent residents in Almaty, energy-rich Kazakhstan’s largest city, on Friday reacted with dismay after Beijing pipped the ex-Soviet underdog to the right to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

Hundreds of inhabitants, some with the sky blue and yellow Kazakh flag painted on their cheeks, had gathered expectantly for an open-air broadcast of the announcement in the centre of the city of some 1.5 million.

In the end, however, they were left to traipse home in disappointment as the city’s bid to become the first country in the Central Asian region to host an Olympics fell just short: Beijing won by 44 votes to 40. 

“It is a shame Almaty did not win,” said Rustam Kullibayev, a 20-year-old student, as he left the screening.  

“The Olympics means history. We would have had something to tell our children. And of course, it is always interesting when people come to visit your city.”

Central Asian Almaty, which was Kazakhstan’s capital until glitzy government project Astana took its mantle in 1997, had tried and failed to host major sporting events in the past, notably the 2014 Winter Olympics that Sochi in neighbouring Russia ended up hosting. 

But dreams of Almaty 2022 were buoyed by the news that big hitters Oslo, Munich and Stockholm all withdrew their bids, leaving Almaty to go head-to-head with Beijing. 

Set against a backdrop of striking mountains, Almaty’s bid committee stressed Beijing’s shortage of real snow in its final presentation to the IOC, winning supporters over with a hip promotional video featuring the slogan ‘Keeping it real’.

The city’s bid was not without controversy, however, as critics highlighted Kazakhstan’s generally poor human rights record and a developing economy that has stuttered on the back of low prices for its key crude oil export.  

In what many saw as a concession to the IOC, the country’s constitutional court ruled to block a bill that would have banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation” in May, while bid members assured the IOC the country would be able to tap into a $75 billion sovereign wealth fund to finance the games if needed.  

“It’s upsetting that we didn’t win,” said shop worker Ruslan Chil-Ogly, 20.

“I wanted to see such as great event as the Olympics with my own eyes and holding the games could have boosted Kazakhstan to a new economic level.”

While some were  disappointed, however, others said they were breathing a sigh of relief over the decision. 

“I’m glad that Almaty lost out,” said restaurant manager Elchin Mamedov. 

“Money would have been spent from state funds and half of that would have been stolen.”

“Funds that would have been spent on the Olympics could be used for important social projects,” he said. – Agence France-Presse

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