Choosing from two authoritarian countries to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee has favored the one that lacks snow, water, or winter sports: Beijing. The other choice was Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. The committee made the decision at a session in Kuala Lumpur on Friday (July 31).
In a last-minute statement before the vote, Chinese president Xi Jinping appeared in a pre-recorded video to sway the 86 IOC delegates. He said a Beijing Olympics would “boost exchanges and mutual understanding between the Chinese and other civilizations of the world,” and he vowed the Chinese people would help create a “fantastic, extraordinary, and excellent” event.
Throughout the bid, Beijing, which will become the first city to host both the summer and winter games, boasted about its rising power, economic growth, and good rankings in Olympic medal tables, plus its performance hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics.
As Quartz has reported, Beijing has dry winters and must rely on artificial snow, making it a less-than-ideal choice. Chinese officials said they have plenty of water supplies and snow-making equipment to provide excellent conditions.
Almaty’s counter-attack was simple. With the slogan “Keeping It Real,” a promo video showed stretches of snowy mountain peaks, athletes competing at winter sports venues, and local residents playing, chanting, or horseback riding in the snow. “Real snow. Real winter ambiance. Real winter games,” the video signed off.
In its own promo video, Beijing used 3D animation to show snowflakes, stadium models, and a high-speed train connecting the nation’s capital with two co-host cities where the mountain events will be held. As for real footage, much was borrowed from the 2008 summer games, mixed with scenes of Chinese athletes playing in past winter Olympics.
Activists had called on the IOC to reject Beijing’s bid because of China’s deteriorating human rights situation, pointing to the recent nationwide crackdown on lawyers and others.
In 2008 Jacques Rogge, then the IOC president, said “the staging of the Olympic Games will do a lot for the improvement of human rights and social relations in China.” Yet China then proceeded to drop in the press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, sliding from 167th in 2008 to 175th in 2014. Stricter controls over media, free expression, and ideology have been seen since Xi took power in 2012.
Part of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan also leaves much to be desired in the area of human rights. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since 1989, and Human Rights Watch reported the government was deploying overly broad laws to crack down on political dissent, as the Guardian noted.
China and Kazakhstan have close economic ties. In March, the two countries signed 33 deals worth $23.6 billion covering steel, non-ferrous metals, sheet glass, oil refining, hydropower, and automobiles. That was during Kazakhstan prime minister Karim Massimov’s visit to China, when Xi called for enhanced cooperation in construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt.