Almaty offers traditional winter setting in 2022 Olympic bid
ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) Instead of grand talk about how the Olympics will break new ground by going to a majority-Muslim country for the first time, or by making their first visit to Central Asia, Almaty's bid for the 2022 Winter Games is about tradition.
After a backlash against Sochi's $50 billion Winter Olympic extravaganza last year, the onus is on Almaty and its rival for the 2022 Games - Beijing - to show how they would host the games without big budgets and huge construction projects.
For Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, that means taking venues from its Soviet sporting past, fixing them up and adding some Olympic glamor. The jewel in Almaty's crown is the Medeu ice rink. Nestled between mountains, the open-air rink offers spectacular venues of jagged peaks and a wooded valley, the kind of Alpine scenery reminiscent of Winter Olympics past.
''It's like working in a fairytale,'' said the rink's sports manager, Jamilya Ilyasheva. ''You don't just walk to work, you run.''
Even at the height of summer, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees F (37 degrees C), Medeu retains a wintry feel as a glacier on the nearby summit of Mount Abai, named after a Kazakh poet, flashes white.
In its Soviet heyday, Medeu was a major speedskating venue as its high altitude made for fast times and it became the site of numerous world records. For the Olympics, it would be refurbished with extra seating. Current IOC specifications would also require a roof, but if Almaty gets the games, officials say they will try to persuade the IOC otherwise, meaning 2022 could see the first open-air skating at the Olympics in 30 years.
Just one venue, a 12,000-seat ice arena, would be built from scratch in Almaty. Several others date back to Soviet times or were built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games and would be refurbished and expanded.
Almaty started out as a long shot when the 2022 bidding opened but rose into serious contention when a string of European bidders dropped out amid concern over the cost of the Olympics in tough economic times. Almaty is adamant that it offers value for money.
''We're not building some huge projects that won't be of any use to anyone afterward, like a white elephant. We've got everything,'' deputy bid chairman Andrei Kryukov said.
Kryukov thinks his message is getting through to International Olympic Committee voters.
''We've changed everyone's opinions,'' he told The Associated Press.
Direct criticism of other candidates is banned under IOC rules, but the Kazakh bid has targeted Beijing's weaknesses with precision.
Beijing's Nordic ski venue is about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the city and some of the Chinese capital's venues would need vast volumes of artificial snow. Under the slogan ''Keeping it Real,'' Almaty has emphasized its natural snow coverage and compactness - most venues are within half an hour's travel through Alpine scenery.
''In Sochi, they built a whole new town, new facilities were built,'' Culture and Sports Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediuly told the AP. ''But we've got all that.''
The oil-rich nation says its games will cost $1.7 billion. Another $4.5 billion is earmarked for infrastructure upgrades to relieve issues such as Almaty's chronic traffic jams, money which the government says will be spend regardless of whether the city gets the games.
For the Almaty bid team, the Olympics are all about putting Kazakhstan on the map.
''Of course we're not as famous as other big cities,'' Kruykov said. ''It's our main task to let everybody know.''
Since independence 24 years ago, Kazakhstan has been ruled by former Soviet party boss Nursultan Nazarbayev and many opposition activists have been jailed or left the country citing political threats. In April, Nazarbayev was re-elected with almost 98 percent of the vote.
Almaty-based human rights activist Bakhytzhan Toregozhina estimates that Kazakhstan has about 2,000 prisoners of conscience, including political and religious activists. In her work advocating for their rights, Toregozhina has been arrested repeatedly.
Kazakhstan could also face a repeat of Sochi's controversies over gay rights because of ''terrible homophobia'' in the country, Toregozhina said.
Still, Toregozhina said Kazakhstan's human rights record is better than that of neighboring China, pointing out that Kazakhstan has nothing approaching China's vast ''great firewall'' of online censorship.
The Kazakh government insists it respects human rights.
''I'd be happy to answer if people had concrete facts about where in Kazakhstan some kind of ethnic group ... or religious activities are being persecuted,'' Mukhamediuly said.