The differences between 2022 Winter Olympic host city finalists Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing start with size.
Look at the nations’ most famous athletes on hand for the International Olympic Committee vote in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Friday.
Kazakhstan has Olympic bronze medalist figure skater Denis Ten, who is 5 feet, 6 inches. China brought Yao Ming, the retired basketball star who is 7 feet, 6 inches.
Only two cities are Olympic bidding finalists, for just the second time in 34 years.
If Almaty wins, it will mark the first Olympics in Kazakhstan. The nation would be the smallest by population to host an Olympics since Greece in 2004 and smallest for a Winter Olympics since Norway in 1994 (Kazakhstan’s first time independently at the Olympics after the Soviet Union breakup).
If Beijing wins, it will become the first city to host a Summer and Winter Olympics, after it put on the 2008 Summer Games, the first held in the world’s most populous nation.
The bid committees will make presentations to IOC members between 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday and 1 a.m. Friday, followed by the vote and then the announcement of the host city between 5:30-6 a.m. (full session schedule here). The 2020 Youth Winter Olympic host city announcement is also scheduled for that half-hour window (either Lausanne, Switzerland, or Brasov, Romania).
It’s the first time there will be fewer than three finalists, following European bid dropouts, since 2006 (when Torino beat Sion, Switzerland), but it is far from a simple vote, said Rob Livingstone, producer of GamesBids.com, covering Olympic host city bidding.
“A lot of people are calling it a landslide for Beijing,” he said. “I don’t think it will be.”
Almaty’s bid fits well with the IOC’s Agenda 2020, which IOC president Thomas Bach has called “a strategic roadmap for the future” of the Olympics and stresses reduced costs in bidding.
“A lot of the venues are already built, and they’re building more for the Universiade in 2017 [the 2017 World University Winter Games hosted by Almaty],” said Livingstone, who visited Almaty. “It really is a compact footprint. Nothing’s too far to drive to. They’ve got lots of natural snow and a winter sports culture.”
He added that Almaty lacks experience in Olympic bidding, hotels and, especially compared to Beijing, familiarity to IOC members, who are not allowed to visit bid cities before the vote (save the four members on the IOC evaluation commission).
“It’s the kind of place you have to see to get it,” Livingstone said. “Otherwise you don’t know what’s there. That’s a big stumbling block.”
The Beijing bid plans to reuse its iconic Summer Olympic venues. The Bird’s Nest stadium would host Opening and Closing Ceremonies, as it did in 2008. The Water Cube, where Michael Phelps won eight gold medals, will become the Ice Cube for curling.
“The big pro that Beijing has is the same thing with 2008, a huge market for sponsors,” Livingstone said. “If they [IOC members] think Beijing is the safe choice, they’ll go with it. Tokyo was the safe choice in 2020 [beating Istanbul and Madrid in a 2013 vote].”
The Beijing bid is more spread out, with mountain events slated to be held as far away as Zhangjiakou, which is 100 miles northwest. A planned high-speed railway would take passengers from Beijing to Zhangjiakou in 50 minutes, according to a Beijing 2022 promo video launched last fall. A third venue cluster in Yanqing is situated between Beijing and Zhangjiakou.
“They’re going to get it done,” Livingstone said of the expensive railway, “but it’s something that’s debatable whether it’s necessary if they don’t get the Games.”
Beijing faces familiar concerns from the 2008 Olympics, air pollution and human-rights issues. Kazakhstan also is under scrutiny for its human rights record.
Almaty’s slogan, “Keeping It Real,” emphasizes a Beijing weakness — a lack of snow. The last two Winter Olympic hosts — Vancouver and Sochi — also ended up dealing with this issue. Beijing officials are confident they can rely on man-made snow.