Nick Butler
Nick Butler Since it officially began in the autumn of 2013, the race for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics has produced twists and turns galore, demonstrating once again just how many factors are at play when bidding for a major event.

Following the mass withdrawals of Stockholm, Kraków, Lviv and Oslo last year, the only opposition to a second Games in Beijing in a generation comes from Almaty, the largest city and former capital of Kazakhstan which is being inspected this week by the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Evaluation Commission.

Midway through a visit to the city to cover the event, I have to say that Almaty's plan appears much how a Winter Olympics should be, a picturesque city in the shadow of mountains and a pleasing blend of old and historical facilities with state-of-the-art new ones.

But, as we all know, having sound technical proposals are only one part of a strong bid, and it is for other reasons that Beijing remains the strong favourite in the two-horse race.

Having never attended an IOC Evaluation Commission before and boasting only one Olympic Games on my résumé, in Sochi this time last year, I am perhaps not in the best position to fully analyse the merits of the bid. Yet it comes across as well-balanced and fully in line with the reforming air of Agenda 2020, the series of 40 reforms passed by the IOC at its Session in Monte Carlo in December.

First and foremost, Almaty is an attractive city, which blends its Soviet past with its Kazakh present, with archaic monuments, mosques and Orthodox Christian churches placed alongside skyscrapers and sweeping shopping malls. More than any other previous Winter Olympic bid of recent years, the city is at the heart of Almaty 2022, with venues for ice hockey, ice skating, curling, ski jumping, sliding sports and Nordic combined all within the city centre itself.

Almaty's bid blends old venues, such as the Shymbulak Resort, with modern ones, with all in compact locations close to the city ©ITGAlmaty's bid blends old venues, such as the Shymbulak Resort, with modern ones, with all in compact locations close to the city ©ITG

The Sanki Jumping Hills, developed ahead of the 2011 Asian Winter Games, is considered among the best facilities in the world, and will provide stunning backdrops of the city centre that should conjure memories of the similarly iconic diving venue at Barcelona 1992.

Further up into the mountains we have Medeu Skating Rink, the old Soviet venue 1,600 metres about sea level where around 120 world records have been set, with a new roof to be installed in order to deem it suitable for speed skating during the Games. A 15 minute cable-car journey away, we have another iconic Soviet remnant, the Shymbulak resort where downhill and super G action would take place, while further around we have new facilities for biathlon, snowboarding and cross country and freestyle skiing, all of which should have a strong legacy benefit for local communities after the Games.

Compactness and sustainability - encapsulated by bid slogan "Keeping it Real" - are the key themes of the bid, and with no venue more than 30 kilometres from the Olympic Village, this really does seem to have been achieved.

After many recent Winter Olympics consisting of long journeys between mountain and city clusters, this would be a return to an older format, in a new but really quite traditional winter city, much more so than a Sochi or, dare I say it, a Beijing. It would also help open up a new country, which, in some parts of the world, is still known more for the film Borat starring Sacha Baron Cohen than anything else...

For point of comparison, the Chinese capital would be 190km away from the mountain sport venue at Zhangjiakou and, although a new high speed rail line would reduce travel time to under an hour, it is claimed surely not everyone could journey this way and the massive spending required is far less in line with the message of Agenda 2020.

We will find out more about Beijing's bid when the IOC visit next month but Almaty's, for which eight of the 14 proposed venues are completed and another three are already being constructed for the 2017 Winter Universiade, should certainly compare favourably.

It would offer much that is attractive to the IOC and sports federations alike, not to mention for the athletes, spectators, media and general public.

But, then we come on to Almaty's weaknesses.

Some of these are general and also apply to Beijing, with alleged human rights abuses an obvious place to start. Yes, Kazakhstan is clearly a somewhat authoritarian state, with only one President in its 24 year history, but as we have seen, if no Western countries are prepared to bid, we have to accept that such systems of Governments have strengths as well as weakness and a bid cannot be shut out because of a report by Human Rights Watch.

And, as I have been reminded whenever I have mentioned "HR" issues during my visit, China, but also the United States and other so called "democratic" nations, do not have flawless records either.

A monument to Kazakh independence next to the proposed medals plaza for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic in the centre of Almaty ©ITGA monument to Kazakh independence next to the proposed medals plaza for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic in the centre of Almaty ©ITG

Yet the sense I have got is that Kazakhstan is a more open country than many others. Combining around 130 ethnic groups, it does seem a tolerant society, with Russians and Kazakh, an 63 per cent majority ethnic group of Turkic origin, combining without obvious friction alongside Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Uighurs, Tatars, Germans, South Koreans and other groups repatriated here during the Soviet era.

Kazakhstan has not been embroiled in a serious conflict since independence, and while it is hard to accurately assess, there does seem genuine respect for the nation's longstanding President, the 74-year-old former steel worker Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has managed to revive a coherent national identity, introduce successful market reforms attracting vast foreign investment and strategically balance the nation between Eastern and Western spheres.

It is thus much more complex than a question of a dodgy human rights record, although bid officials would do well to handle the inevitable questions on the matter from international media with more understanding and clarity they did at last night's press briefing, where the question generated a somewhat brusque and confused response.

While less so than in Beijing, air pollution in Almaty, where smog gets trapped within the valley, is another challenge, although one they are already striving hard to improve.

A layer of smog pictured above Almaty ©ITGA layer of smog pictured above Almaty ©ITG

A third issue, and one that does appear more controllable, is doping questions following the listing of cyclist Alexander Vinokourov as an ambassador on the bid website. While the 41-year-old reigning Olympic road race champion remains a sporting legend in Kazakhstan, he is synonymous with a tainted era of cycling everywhere else, and, with doping questions having been so important in the 2020 race, he is surely a risk that a bid striving to make up for lost ground can ill afford.

Then we come onto the more profound challenges, such as communicating the bid to both the public and the IOC.

From about April to maybe July last year, we at insidethegames had Almaty down as the narrow favourite in the 2022 race, with Beijing still seemingly uncertain about their commitment to a contest they had probably initially entered mostly to get winter bidding experience.

But from August, when eight major sponsors were unveiled by Beijing, they have got their act together, making all the right noises and hiring experienced public relations agency Weber Shandwick, who played a key role in Tokyo 2020's bidding success, to support their cause.

Almaty, on the other hand, stuttered and stalled, making little effort with communication, and surviving rather than utilising the opportunities provided by their presentation at November's Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly in Bangkok. At one stage, it almost felt like they were being persuaded to remain in a race they had little interest in, predominantly to ensure a contest continued.

In recent weeks, this has changed with a plethora of international consulting appointments, including of Terrence Burns, managing director of Teneo Strategy, who worked on Pyeongchang's successful bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, and Andrew Craig, head of The Craig Company, who worked on London 2012, spreading the "Keeping it Real" message.

Although it has been slightly lower key, I am told, than previous visits, with less sporting demonstrations and flag-waving supporters present for instance, this is surely a indicator of post-Agenda 2020 austerity, with the IOC having replaced the bid cities in financing the visits. The major complaint we have had is the lack of access we have so far had to the IOC - except for a five minute "no questions" photo shoot - not Almaty's fault but hardly evidence of new openness and transparency.

Considering Almaty's head of media operations Bermet Askar was put in intensive care with a fractured skull after being hit by a car while en-route to meet us all for the first time on the eve of the visit, the Bid team have done a very good job, with virtually impeccable organisation and a never-ending drive to keep us entertained and informed.

The question remains though as to whether this is a case of too little too late.

And then we come onto the final and perhaps biggest obstacle, which is the question of Government support. Yes, there were utterances from the Minister for Foreign Affairs Yerlan Idrissov yesterday that the authorities support the bid.

But what is required is a clear and unequivocal statement from President Nazarbayev that he supports a Winter Olympics staged wholly in Almaty, rather than Astana, the city 1,200 kilometres to the Northwest he made capital instead of Almaty in 1997.

The question of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's overwhelming support for the bid still seems slightly unclear ©Getty ImagesThe question of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's overwhelming support for the bid still seems slightly unclear ©Getty Images

As far as I can tell, this has not yet clearly happened, and certainly not in a public sense. With the President in his seventies and having ruled for so long, there must also be some feeling of risk that his death before 2022 could trigger a power vacuum and thus instability which would disrupt preparations, but a clearer signal now - as Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping has done - would go a long way to abating this fear.

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov was due to meet the IOC Commission tomorrow, which would have been one good step, but he is now unable to attend due to political distractions in Astana. When asked about political support tonight by insidethegames, bid vice-chairman Andrey Kryukov insisted it was unequivocal, adding that they thought it was more important to get statements from the President closer to the decisive vote in July than now.

But, from my perspective, Almaty should still seek more decisive Presidential backing, modify their list of ambassadors and then focus over and over on communicating better their strong bid, which blends sustainability with a traditional winter concept.

Of course, we know that not all IOC members necessarily vote based on the technical strengths of one bid over another, but, if Almaty 2022 can do all of this, they will have at least a fighting chance.

And, in a race that has already surprised much, who would bet against more surprises before the IOC membership make their final decision at its Session in Kuala Lumpur on July 31?

Nick Butler is a senior reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.