The decision of the International Olympic Committee to award the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing appears to have been made on the basis of politics rather than reality, with the IOC turning down what demonstrably was a superior bid.
The last country standing, besides China, was Kazakhstan, whose manifestly better submission for the games to be held at the former country capital of Almaty was turned down amid widespread reports that bullied IOC delegates did not want to “offend” China by voting against its bid.
So much for soft power. Behind the decision was China’s inability to understand the sensitivity of its Asian neighbors or the world’s. Instead, there appears no end to its desire to be the big man on the global stage in every conceivable field, justified or not. It is a classic example of how China bullies other nations and organizations to give it awards it doesn’t deserve.
There was widespread and justifiable opposition to China’s bid by human rights organizations that protested to the IOC that Beijing, under the administration of President Xi Jinping, has for the past month been staging the biggest crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers since the 1989 massacre of students in Tiananmen Square. At least 200 lawyers have been jailed and interrogated or placed under residential surveillance. Many have been brought to secret locations and pressured to confess their “criminal activities” during their incarceration.
In the case of international sporting events, big money also often plays a decisive role so that cannot be ruled out in this case either.
Beijing’s bid should have been laughed out of court on day one considering that the venues it offers for the events are 90 to 160 kilometers outside the city and have little snow. Kazakhstan sought vainly to capitalize on that fact with a slogan,
“Keeping it real,” a swipe at China’s promise to create artificial snow. “Real snow, real winter ambience, real winter games,” said Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry.
So Beijing will mostly create snow, using up scarce water resources and formidable amounts of energy in a smog-ridden city.
“You do have to laugh a little bit at the concept of a winter games in a place that doesn’t get snow,” said one critic.
Thus the award is a setback for environmental issues as well as winter sports lovers. Nor does the region offer anything in the way of spectacular scenery.
That is in contrast to the city of Almaty, still Kazakhstan’s largest city and a major commercial center with a population of about 1.2 million. It lies in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains and the sports venues would have been just outside the city, using plentiful real stuff.
The mountain scenery is spectacular and Almaty itself is readily accessible by direct air links to many locations in east and Southeast Asia and Europe. Almaty also has had plenty of experience with organizing events both as a former part of the Soviet Union and since independence. Nonetheless, if anything, Kazakhstan should be feeling a good deal of relief about the huge amount of money it isn’t going to have to shell out to build extensive stadium facilities and other venues.
Unfortunately for the Kazaks, their vastly superior bid was undone not just by Chinese bullying but the presence of the lingering ignorance and disregard for the country, which like most of the ‘stans, is a black hole to much of the rest of the world. It has also suffered from the impression left by the British Jewish racist so-called comedian Baron Sacha Cohen, who presented it in the movie Borat as a urine-drinking, wife-beating, cow-punching, sister-screwing, prostitute-ridden, Muslim, anti-Semitic nation speaking some weird gobbledygook language.
It is an image that is nonsense. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, for instance, reports that more companies across Kazakhstan are adopting international standards in corporate governance. It is a resource-rich country that is growing up. It may be true that its politics are bizarre. Its only president from the time of its breakaway from the Soviet Union is Nursultan Nazarbayev, who remains uncommonly popular, with US-run opinion polls giving him an approval rating of a stratospheric 90 percent. Some of that may well be from people who were afraid to voice their opposition to a stranger. But even his opponents say he would likely get 60-70 percent of the votes in a truly fair election.
And its politics are hardly more bizarre than Beijing’s, given the extraordinary efforts the country goes to in the campaign to keep an eye on its own citizens. It isn’t as if the games have always rtbeen awarded to bastions of democracy. After all, they went to Germany in 1936, where Adolf Hitler presided at the opening ceremony.