Nick Butler
Nick ButlerFrom being picked up in a VIP bus on the airport runway to being plied with more magnificent, banquet-style food than I thought possible, I have to admit that visiting Beijing to inspect China's 2022 Olympic and Paralympic bid was one of the highlights of my career so far.

The way we were treated in both Beijing and Almaty, the other bidder for the 2022 Games, is far more than we deserve and, to all other journalists stuck in dingy offices or media centres, if you get a chance, please don't turn down the opportunity to attend an Evaluation Commission inspection.

But it was important that, with so few people having visited both cities and seen what each has to offer the Olympic Movement, we did not flinch from criticism where necessary.

In the Kazakh city I was impressed with the venues and bid concept, based around compactness and a genuine winter sporting vibe. I had my doubts, however, about certain political and organisational factors, and awarding the Games there would be a major gamble.

Beijing's bid is virtually the polar opposite.

As you would expect, organisation is very strong, with the economic powerhouse utilising all of its experience from the Beijing 2008 Summer Games. Officials said all the right things and support from all levels of Government was unequivocal. After the anxieties of Sochi 2014, Rio 2016 and Pyeongchang 2018, another Beijing Games would in one sense come as a relief to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) which has had enough of delays and setbacks.

Some venues and conceptual elements were also impressive. It is one of the advantages of returning to a recent Olympic host city, but using five Beijing 2008-leftovers is a sound idea, with Opening and Closing Ceremonies to be held, once again, in the Bird's Nest Stadium, while curling would have a new home in the Water Cube, ahem, Ice Cube.

Using the Bird's Nest Stadium once again is one attractive element of the Beijing 2022 bid ©Getty ImagesUsing the Bird's Nest Stadium once again is one attractive element of the Beijing 2022 bid ©Getty Images

Ski jumping, biathlon and cross country at the foot of the Great Wall of China is another strong part, while the IOC and Winter Federations appear genuinely pleased with plans to hold Alpine skiing and sliding sports in Yanqing.

Yanqing lies in between the two other venue clusters in Beijing itself and Zhangjiakou, the city 190 kilometres to the north-west close to the Nordic and freestyle ski and snowboard venues. The three sites will be linked by a new high-speed railway, due for completion in 2019, which will reportedly reduce distances from over three hours by car to around 50 minutes.

Developing Zhangjiakou, an agriculturally-dominated region known for its wine and history - with the reported site of the first Chinese civilisation 4,000 years ago at Zhuolu County close by - came across as the most powerful legacy aim of the bid. As was clear when we met with local officials, the Olympics would make a huge difference for this area, bringing in tourism and investment and connecting it far better to the metropolis of Beijing.

Reducing pollution levels was also cited as an aim of Beijing 2022, much as it was during Beijing 2008, and it has got far worse since then, with dust storms over the weekend raising levels further, although I must admit it was not an obvious hazard during our visit. Promising free internet access is another good step, but most of the rest of the world, including Almaty, does not have any restrictions anyway.

Encouraging 300 million new stakeholders into winter sport is, however, the major calling card of the bid.

I was not sure about this. Yes, having this new many participants would bring a huge benefit, in a commercial sense as well as a purely competitive one, but where did this 300 million figure come from? Possibly it really would make that much of a difference, but, at this point there is a long, long way to go. It may have been because we were there at the end of the season in March - the scheduled month for the Paralympics in 2022 - but there wasn't too much evidence of winter sporting passion in Beijing, and hardly anyone skiing, and not much snow, in the mountains.

Seeing the Great Wall of China was exciting, but there was not much snow to be seen ©Beijing 2022Seeing the Great Wall of China was exciting, but there was not much snow to be seen ©Beijing 2022

A very different experience to what was seen in Almaty, where 30 centimetres of "fresh, natural" snow was reported last week. After a 2018 Pyeongchang Games set to take place in a slightly underwhelming and non-traditional setting, it would seem hard for the winter sporting community to get too excited about Beijing 2022 as well..

The Agenda 2020 reform process brings an extra layer of complexity to the 2022 race, with Beijing duly focusing on being "athlete-centred, sustainable and economical". This Chinese commitment to Agenda 2020 was wheeled out several times a day during the visit, and on the final day IOC Evaluation Commission chair praised the bid for "embracing the spirit and goals" of the process. A definite tick-in-the-box then.

The trouble is, anyone can find a way in which they conform with Agenda 2020, and this was always going to be the case giving the vagueness of the 40 recommendations passed by the IOC at its Session in Monte Carlo in December. Almaty and Beijing's bids are so vastly different, but both claim this conformity as a core strength of their bid.

The use of five existing venues in the Beijing city centre certainly reflects this, as does the low budget, lower even than Almaty's before the Kazakh city reportedly cut $500 million (£330 million/€460 million) in post Evaluation Commission-visit changes. But the deeper we probed, the more it seemed that a lot of Beijing's spending is actually not included in this budget.

Many of the venues were going to be constructed anyway and apparently will be regardless of the bid being successful, so are seemingly not included, while the IOC was not even informed of wider spending costs on two new highways and the high-speed trainline because it is "unrelated to the Games", part of a wider railway network planned by the Government well before the bid was conceived.

Our reception on the airport runway summed up the organisation of Beijing 2022, but the bid does present challenges for the Olympic Movement ©ITGOur reception on the airport runway summed up the organisation of Beijing 2022, but the bid does present challenges for the Olympic Movement ©ITG

Yet the project has reportedly been brought forward because of the bid, and, with 70,000 people a day due to be carried on the train, it is such a key component and has been so often trumpeted as such, that the term "unrelated" doesn't add up. As it is so key for the success of the Games, for the IOC to not want to know exact costs also seems strange.

This is all very confusing, and I am limited somewhat by having no point of comparison with previous Olympic bid processes, but there does appear a distinct lack of openness and transparency. Is the IOC desperate to avoid these wider figures becoming public in order to avoid a $51 billion (£34 billion/€47 billion) like-figure being trumpeted out like it was ahead of Sochi 2014?

We have not got any sort of figure for the railway yet, although we will continue working on it. But with the trainline to be among the most advanced in China, covering difficult mountainous terrain and set to run every five minutes at peak times during the Games, we can presume it will be expensive.

So is Agenda 2020 actually making the process less rather than more open? This was something said in Monte Carlo, where the public rather than private voting process discouraged members voting against any motion, and is relevant again here.

Rather like as at the IOC Session in Monte Carlo, Agenda 2020 appears as much a superficial attempt at democracy and openness as a genuine one ©IOCRather like as at the IOC Session in Monte Carlo, Agenda 2020 appears as much a superficial attempt at democracy and openness as a genuine one ©IOC

While I am on a moan against the IOC, although journalists were allowed in to both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Beijing, unlike in Almaty, the one venue-tour photoshoot we enjoyed in Kazakhstan was abandoned.

There were rumours this was because journalists had dared to ask questions during the Almaty one (i.e. do their job) and if true, this would be ridiculous. Whether this is true or not, it is clear the IOC put huge pressure on both candidates to control media access. Zhukov did, to be fair, attempt to justify in his opening remarks, on the grounds that they needed to fully focus on their inspections. But complete openness and transparency it was not.

The revival of the Free Tibet movement and human rights concerns is another challenge, as it is for Almaty, and it will be interesting to see if the scale of these protests grow over coming months. Close scrutiny and criticism can be expected whoever wins.

Overall I was impressed with the Chinese bid, which remains the clear favourite in the race with four months to go until the final decision is due to be made in Kuala Lumpur, and I am confident that Beijing is capable of pulling it off again.

Yet another Chinese Games certainly presents challenges for the IOC and its President Thomas Bach, and negative stories about high spending, a lack of openness and human rights concerns could prove a constant menace over the next seven years.

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