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The case for the winter olympics, and hosting them in Almaty

A friend of mine, Jordan Ward, has taken time away from his Masters in Public Policy, advocacy for calendar reform and the forced extinction of all animals that can’t be moved to a vegan diet to write about why we should ditch the Winter Olympics. It’s a good time to consider this idea, he says, because none of the prospective hosts for 2022 are up to scratch. In response I want to make the case for why we should hold on to the Winter Games and then, why we should hold the next ones in Almaty.

Unfreezing the diversity issue

Jordan’s most persuasive argument is the laughable qualification standards reserved for countries that don’t have ice. He slaps down classical/pop violinist Vanessa Mae who qualified for the ski slalom for Thailand, ostensibly for a lark. His most compelling example is the American man who bought citizenship from the Dominican Republic, qualified for cross country skiing as a result, and then ditched his 15km race after 300m.

The problem with these examples is that they make the case to ditch affirmative action qualification standards, not the games as a whole. Doing so would decrease the diversity in the games, though, that, Jordan says, is already wanting,: “North America, Europe and the former Soviet states sent 2,500 of the 2,900 athletes competing at Sochi, and won 267 of the 295 medals.” Jordan says this is contrary to the spirit of the Olympics where five rings represent five continents. A couple of points on this. First, you can’t reasonably bundle Uzbekistan and the United States together and imply they’re the same. Former Soviet states deserve some recognition of their very different modern history, the challenges they currently face and their significant growth in medal prospects in years since their independence. There might be less diversity in winter than summer games, but there is some, and there are also fewer sports and a smaller audience to match.

Second, if your concern is that the Global South under-performs you’ll need to scrap the Summer Olympics too. Medal tallies over time strongly correlate with wealth and the nutritional development it implies. That’s why India, with about a sixth of the world’s population, has won less than 0.0001% of Summer Olympic medals. Bangladesh has a hundred and fifteen million people and no Olympic medals. Sure, countries like Jamaica buck that trend. But they also have bobsled teams, one of which inspired what must truly be one of the best sporting films of all time.

For Almaty 2022

There’s no principled reason to put the winter games on ice, so the more pressing issue is what host city to choose for their next iteration. There are now three in the running: Oslo, Beijing and Almaty.

Beijing has an inescapable lack of hills. Bobsleigh would be 90km from the city, skiing 200km. That’s enough, to my mind, to dismiss the bid. Never mind the fact that Beijing already held an Olympics.

Oslo’s problems are less fundamental to the physics of skiing, but are fundamental. The bid lacks popular support. The Wall Street Journal says the population are “leery” about the prospect of inviting the world to come to town. The majority of Norwegians oppose the bid, and the government has yet to confirm any funding.

That brings us to Almaty. A crown of mountains that are a veritable winter sports playground surrounds Almaty. It has sound infrastructure, reliable snows and a cosmopolitan vibe. Just look at the pretty video:

Jordan has hopped on the bandwagon that wants to exclude Kazakhstan for human rights reasons. There’s no excusing its autocratic government, and questions about human rights abuses, including torture, deserve answers. But lets be honest, Beijing hosted the summer games in 2008 and its government is certainly as dastardly. Recalling that Salt Lake City hosted the winter games in 2002 the use of torture starts to seem like a prerequisite, not a reason to exclude.

More seriously the international spotlight tends to shed light on corruption and human rights abuses. Kazakhstan would be craving the world’s praise once it has its attention. A winter Olympics in Almaty may be a real chance to break the democratic ice, or at least chip away at it.

Most commentary on Almaty’s bid I’ve read reek of a kind of “where even is Kazakhstan” kind of ignorance. Maybe that’s not unreasonable for a country with a persona defined by a spoof movie. But it is both unfair and a rebuttal to the claim that Kazakhstan “isn’t ready for prime time”. Kazakhstan needs prime time. It needs exposure. It needs the world to learn what we did when we visited: that it’s beautiful, modern, and open for business.

It’s also a chance for the Kazakh nation to stand up and be proud. When it hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games (note, experience…) it was suddenly common to name baby girls Asiada after the event. No doubt there will be more strangely named girls when Almaty hosts the 2017 Winter Universiade (and more experience to boot).

Hosting major sports events is expensive. But where governments choose to foot the bill they should do so for the intangible gains their money buys. And for my money, the growth in exposure and pride that Kazakhstan would get if Almaty hosts the winter games in 2022 would be one of the rare times when it’s a worthwhile investment.

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