IOC officials concluded their inspection of Almaty's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics on Wednesday, saying they were impressed with the Kazakh city's venues and satisfied with the government's assurances on human rights.
Almaty is competing against Beijing in a race that was reduced to two candidates after the withdrawal of four bidders because of financial and political concerns.
The 14-member IOC evaluation commission, chaired by Russian member Alexander Zhukov, spent 4 1/2 days visiting Almaty's proposed venues and meeting with bid and government leaders to assess the Central Asian nation's capability of hosting the world's biggest winter sports event.
While declining to comment on specific strengths and weaknesses of the bid, Zhukov offered words of encouragement for a bid that has been widely seen as an underdog against the political and economic might of China.
''Almaty has spectacular mountains, some very impressive venues and a real passion for winter sports,'' Zhukov said at a news conference. ''I can say that our visit has confirmed that Almaty is capable of holding successful games in 2022.''
''We were impressed by what we have seen,'' he added. ''Everything we have seen shows Almaty is a qualified candidate to host the games. If Almaty wins the bid, the games will help the city to reach its real potential.''
Zhukov's panel will visit Beijing from March 24-28. The full International Olympic Committee will select the host city on July 31 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Almaty, commercial capital of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, also bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics but failed to make the list of finalists. Kazakhstan hosted the 2011 Asian Games, and will stage the Winter University Games in 2017.
Andrey Kryukov, vice chairman of the Almaty bid, said the IOC visit gave the city and country a chance to show that it deserves a chance on the world stage.
''This is our biggest challenge,'' Kryukov told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. ''Kazakhstan is a new country. We try hard to find our place in the world-wide arena. This was our chance to showcase our city to the IOC. I believe we convinced them 100 percent.''
Both sides said the issue of human rights was discussed and Almaty gave assurances the IOC's rules would be respected.
Kazakhstan has routinely been criticized by international democracy groups and foreign governments, including the United States and the European Union, for falling short of commitments on human rights and democratic reforms.
''We asked for and received assurance that Almaty will comply with the requirements of the Olympic Charter,'' said Zhukov, the former Russian deputy prime minister whose own government came under human rights criticism ahead of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. ''The IOC role is limited to the staging of the Olympic Games. We do not and should not interfere in national policy outside the games.''
The IOC last year included new clauses on human rights protection and non-discrimination in the contract for Olympic host cities.
''We are fully following the Olympic Charter,'' Kryukov said. ''We know how serious the IOC pays attention to that. We respect this idea. We respect human rights. We are a young country. We are trying hard to be better. This is a big world for us. We need to find our place. We need to play by the rules. We need to improve.''
Almaty and Beijing submitted their detailed bid files to the IOC last month. Both pledged cost-conscious and sustainable games in line with the ''Olympic Agenda 2020'' reforms approved by the IOC in December.
Almaty says its offers the most compact bid in three decades, with all venues within a 30-kilometer (18-mile) radius, and one that features true winter conditions and plenty of real snow.
''We want to fit the Olympic Games to the city, not to create the city for the Olympic Games,'' Kryukov said.
Zhukov said Almaty was also taking advantage of the flexibility allowed under the IOC reforms. In one change, Almaty has proposed moving all Alpine ski competitions to one location in Almatau, at the request of the international ski federation for technical reasons.
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