KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The snow will be fake, but the very real financial muscle China boasts proved decisive on Friday when Beijing won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Games officials meeting in Kuala Lumpur voted for the Chinese capital over the lure of a winter wonderland offering from Kazakhstan’s Almaty, in a clear sign that the International Olympic Committee is craving solidity and security after a series of problems and headaches.
While Rio scrambles to make up lost time in its building for the 2016 Olympics, and Tokyo is embroiled in a stadium drama the allure of a megacity with a cast-iron financial guarantee proved irresistible.
That Beijing will deliver what Chinese President Xi Jinping is calling “excellent and extraordinary Games” is without doubt, and IOC members voted for that security.
“It’s symbolic and it is a measure of confidence,” former IOC president Jacques Rogge told Reuters. “It’s a good day for the Olympics.”
Not all shared his enthusiasm. The New York-based Human Rights Watch group declared “in choosing China to host another Games, the IOC has tripped on a major human rights hurdle.”
Beyond the slopes, it was a good day for sports equipment and apparel manufacturers who will now gain exposure to China’s hundreds of millions of aspirational middle classes. Beijing mayor and bid leader Wang Anshun dangled the prospect of 300 million new converts.
“We will leverage this success to popularise and develop winter sport in China,” Wang told reporters.
The enormous cost of the sporting spectacle - Russia’s Sochi games cost a record $51 billion - weighs increasingly heavily. Stockholm, Krakow in Poland and Oslo all pulled out in the course of the bidding.
Vice-president Craig Reedie told Reuters the IOC had chosen certainty in China. “We know how the Chinese work. There is a familiarity.”
It was a close-run thing, though, with the Chinese winning by 44 votes to 40 — just two voters’ difference.
Many were charmed by Almaty’s promise of a picture postcard event blanketed in snow in the former Soviet state. The Kazakh offering was an intimate one, with no venue more than 35 km (22 miles) from the Olympic Village.
By contrast, Beijing’s winning bid features repurposed 2008 Summer Olympic venues in the capital and events an hour away at two mountain ranges.
With little snow on the Yanqing and Zhangjiakou ranges, these Games will be “brown, brown, brown” one senior IOC member told Reuters, and will depend on man-made snow.
“Keeping it Real” had been the Kazakhs’ motto, a cheeky dig at Beijing’s reliance on artificial snow.
In Almaty, though, Kazakhs reacted to losing with a mixure of disappointment and relief. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled for 26 years, had said the Games would “make the names of Kazakhstan and Almaty ring out across the world”.
Lawyer Ruslan Dzhusungaliyev, a 45-year-old Almaty resident, said on his Facebook page: “Hooray! The Olympics will be held in China, and our budget will not be plundered.”
The IOC membership did keep it real, though, and this meant following the money and a tried-and-tested Olympic city.
Beijing’s victorious bid team were euphoric, with Wang declaring a historic day.
“This day will go down in history,” he told reporters. “The first time in Olympic history that a city will host both a summer and a winter Olympics. In 120 years this is unprecedented. We are overwhelmed.”
But back home the response was a little more muted with little of the public displays of joy which had greeted the decision to award the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing.
By selecting Beijing, the IOC also appeared willing to accept what looks certain to be a seven-year barrage of questions and criticism over China’s human rights record.
Human Rights Watch, which was highly critical of both China and Kazakhstan during the bid process, was quick to voice its displeasure.
“The Olympic motto of ‘higher, faster, and stronger’ is a perfect description of the Chinese government’s assault on civil society: more peaceful activists detained in record time, subject to far harsher treatment,” HRW’s China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.
The Games body has been criticised by human rights groups for years, most notably after awarding the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing and the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi.
It has since added anti-discrimination clauses to the host city contract.
IOC president Thomas Bach had said on Thursday the committee had been speaking to a wide range of groups, including Human Rights Watch, but that outside the context of the Games, the IOC had to respect the laws of sovereign states.
“With our Olympic values of tolerance, respect, excellence, non-discrimination, we send a strong message to the world – the strong message spread by the athletes living together in the Olympic Village in a community where all people are equal.”
China has long argued that it is unfairly singled out for criticism of its rights record and says other governments should examine their own records before making accusations.
The Beijing 2022 bid committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but said this week sport should be kept separate from politics.
China’s Foreign Ministry also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Ralph Boulton