China Wins the Olympics That Almost No One Else Wanted

The 2022 Winter Olympics go to Beijing in one of the strangest bid processes in history.

GettyImages-482507478crop
GettyImages-482507478crop

What nations still seek the prestige and world spotlight of hosting the Olympics? Perhaps only a selection of autocratic countries willing to foot the expensive price tag, if the bidding process for the 2022 Winter Olympics is any indication.

Beijing was awarded the hosting rights to the 2022 Games on Friday -- edging out its lone competitor, Almaty, Kazakhstan -- making the Chinese capital the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. The announcement Friday ended one of the strangest bidding processes in Olympic history: Every other city removed itself from the running, leaving the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to choose between two unlikely finalists.

The contest came down to the wire, with Almaty making a late surge in the bidding process by focusing on the city’s winter setting, including a set of snowcapped mountains approximately 18 miles from downtown. But Beijing’s experience hosting the Olympics in 2008 ultimately won over voters, and the Chinese capital beat Almaty by 44 votes to 40, with one abstention.

What nations still seek the prestige and world spotlight of hosting the Olympics? Perhaps only a selection of autocratic countries willing to foot the expensive price tag, if the bidding process for the 2022 Winter Olympics is any indication.

Beijing was awarded the hosting rights to the 2022 Games on Friday — edging out its lone competitor, Almaty, Kazakhstan — making the Chinese capital the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. The announcement Friday ended one of the strangest bidding processes in Olympic history: Every other city removed itself from the running, leaving the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to choose between two unlikely finalists.

The contest came down to the wire, with Almaty making a late surge in the bidding process by focusing on the city’s winter setting, including a set of snowcapped mountains approximately 18 miles from downtown. But Beijing’s experience hosting the Olympics in 2008 ultimately won over voters, and the Chinese capital beat Almaty by 44 votes to 40, with one abstention.

Beijing and Almaty were considered outsiders when the 2022 race opened two years ago. But the bidding process narrowed after a slew of European cities — including Lviv, Ukraine; Krakow, Poland; and Stockholm — took themselves out of the bidding early due to political and financial concerns and low public support. That limited the contest to Almaty, Beijing, and Oslo, Norway. Oslo was widely seen as the obvious front-runner, but after the city dropped out due to the event’s multibillion-dollar costs, the race to host the Olympics that no other nations wanted took off between Almaty and Beijing.

In a statement issued after the announcement in Kuala Lumpur, the IOC said Beijing won the Games due to its commitment to a new Olympic agenda for a “stronger focus on sustainability, legacy, and transparency.” It was a particularly strange choice of words, given the city will need to bring water up from rivers in southern China to make enough snow for events, and will also need to build a high-speed rail line to bring spectators to sliding and skiing events about 90 miles from the capital. Beijing says it plans to rely on remaining infrastructure from its hosting of the Summer Olympics in 2008, and estimated new costs for 2022 at $3 billion. However, this figure does not account for the construction of the new railway or the necessary upkeep on Beijing’s existing venues, such as the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, which has sat empty due to high maintenance costs.

Almaty estimated its costs at $6 billion for hosting the Games, but Kazakh officials told Foreign Policy that the government was prepared to use a $75 billion sovereign wealth fund, filled from the country’s oil-revenues, should construction go over budget.

The rising costs associated with hosting the two-week sporting spectacle have been a key reason why many countries have avoided hosting the Games in the recent years. (Even the U.S. Olympic committee is having a hard time finding a host city for the 2024 Summer Games after Boston withdrew its bid amid intense public backlash.) Beijing set the record for the most expensive Olympics with $44 billion in 2008, only to be overshadowed by Russia’s $51 billion for Sochi in 2014. A common talking point about the Olympics is that it can be economically beneficial for host countries and cities, which receive a boost from added tourism and investment. However, there is little evidence to support this claim.

“No economist has found any evidence that there is an economic boost of any sort from hosting the Olympics,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has studied international sporting events, told FP.

With little financial upside, the Olympics have instead become an international stage for autocratic regimes to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the world and at home. For 2022, human rights abuses were a major concern with both finalists. Kazakhstan is ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has run Kazakhstan since it was part of the Soviet Union in 1989, and garnered a reputation for political repression and muzzling the media.

China comes with its own political baggage amid a wave of increased political repression in the country. After Friday’s winner was announced, Human Rights Watch said the decision was “a slap in the face to China’s besieged human rights activists”.

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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