There was disappointment in Almaty as it lost out to Beijing in the race to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games by a mere four votes.
A 500-strong crowd gathered in the mid-afternoon on July 31 in downtown Almaty's Abai Square greeted the news of their city’s defeat with stony silence. Almaty was the clear underdog, and despite giving a good account of itself, the city failed to tip the balance its way as International Olympic Committee delegates gathered in Kuala Lumpur gave the nod to Beijing by a narrow margin of 44 votes to 40.
The decision is a blow to long-term president Nursultan Nazarbayev's image-making project for Kazakhstan, which had hoped for the spectacle of the Winter Olympics as the crowning glory of the country's rise from impoverished post-Soviet backwater to a dynamic, emerging player on the world stage.
Both Almaty and Kazakhstan have gained a massive publicity boost in the world's media as the bid decision day loomed. Almaty received plaudits from IOC delegates for the quality of its bid. That was a remarkable turnaround as it was tagged a rank outsider only a year ago. At that time, there was another rival contender — Norway's capital Oslo — and Almaty received the lowest scores from the IOC working group in most of the evaluation categories.
For the authorities the Winter Olympics bid was all about putting Kazakhstan on the map. “Of course we're not as famous as other big cities,” the vice-chairman of Almaty's bid, Andrey Kruykov, told the Associated Press. “It's our main task to let everybody know [about Almaty].”
The bid has generated a wealth of publicity for the city as a winter sports destination. Almaty received praise from the IOC for its skiing facilities and abundant, real snow (The contrast with notoriously snow-free Beijing has not gone unremarked upon). With the 15-day visa-free regime recently prolonged and expanded to cover 19 countries, Almaty's ski slopes could benefit from an influx of visitors attracted to an off-the-beaten track destination.
Even without the games, Almaty has benefited from $1 billion in investment in state-of-the-art venues constructed for the 2011 Asian Winter Games and the 2017 winter student games. Venues, such as the Sunkar Ski Jump complex, would have been used for the Olympics.
One group that might be secretly relieved that the bid failed is Kazakhstan's cash-strapped government. Now it will not need to find the cash for the spectacle. With oil revenues falling in this commodity-reliant economy and the contagion from Russia's involvement in Ukraine still having reverberations, the authorities are finding it hard to balance the books.
Human rights watchdogs hopes that Kazakhstan may be forced to improve its poor rights record because of the games were dealt a blow by Kruykov, who invoked Kazakhstan's traditions alongside the protection of human rights.
“As a young country, we always move forward to improve our understanding and to apply our traditional things in line with human rights,” he said in remarks reported by Ukraine Today.
There were encouraging signs that the bid was having a positive effect on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan. In May, a law that would have prohibited the “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors was struck down by Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council. That was seen as a move to limit damage to Almaty's Olympic bid.
With the Olympics now off the agenda, the law may not be dead and buried. There could be a backlash against Kazakhstan's LGBT community, which according to a recent Human Rights Watch report lives in a “climate of fear.”