Advocating for Almaty with the Canadian-Kazakh Connection: Comparing the Calgary 1988 & Almaty 2022 Winter Olympic Bids

By Kyle D. James, Guest Contributor

On July 31st, 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will decide whether Almaty, Kazakhstan, or Beijing/Zhangjiakou, China, will become the host of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. The Boston 2024 Olympic Committee, along with the European cities that have also announced their candidacies, will be watching closely, as this is the first real litmus test to see if the IOC will choose the bid that most closely aligns with the IOC Agenda 2020 plan to make hosting Olympic Games a more affordable and sustainable experience with positive post-game legacies (Almaty) or the bid that can promise more money for the IOC (Beijing/Zhangjiakou). Although the host city won’t be known until the 31st, the similarities found in Calgary’s winning 1988 Olympic bid and Almaty’s 2022 bid point to the Kazakh city having reason to believe it has a legitimate shot at becoming the 2022 host.

The 1988 Winter Olympic Games had a smaller number of bidders due to the perception that the Games were going to increase in cost and that the Winter Olympics couldn’t be profitable. An increase in the total number of days of the Games from 12 to 16, combined with the fact that the 1980 Lake Placid Games, held the year before the selection of the 1988 host, lost money, contributed to many possible applicant cities deciding not to bid for the Games. On September 30, 1981, the IOC awarded Calgary, Canada, the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, as the city beat out both Falun, Sweden, and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, for the honor.

Given the financial woes of the 2006, 2010, and 2014 Winter Olympic Games and the growing demands of the IOC for an applicant city, all of the other possible applicant cities (Krakow/Zakopane, Poland; Stockholm, Sweden; Oslo, Norway; and Lviv, Ukraine) were either deterred from bidding or had their citizens speak out against their bids in strong enough numbers for their bids to be cancelled. Given the fallout of these three European bids, growing concerns from IOC member countries, and speculation of mismanagement, the IOC launched the Agenda 2020 initiative in December of 2014. Before proposing the initiative, the IOC gathered more than 40,000 suggestions from National Olympic Committees, athletes, IOC members, coaches, government leaders, and the general public, which produced around 1,200 ideas as to how to reform the Olympic movement. This initiative ultimately made 40 recommendations (20+20) that seek to change the way the bidding and hosting process works, reform the IOC commissions, and champion causes such as gender equality and Olympism in the future. Some of these reforms were implemented for the 2022 selection process, while the entire agenda will be implemented for the 2024 selection process. These external factors left a much smaller bid pool for 2022, consisting of only Almaty and Beijing/Zhangjiakou.

Almaty and Calgary’s opponent cities mirror each other as well. Despite Beijing/Zhangjiakou being much larger cities than Falun or Cortina d’Ampezzo, they do have some striking similarities. In Falun, where copper mining is one of the largest employers of the region, the industrial side of the city deals with smoke pollution and toxicity in the soil and water from their industry. Comparatively, Beijing has a terrible smog problem that, while addressed for the 2008 Summer Games, continued to be a problem afterwards. Zhangjiakou also is similar to the mountain cities of Falun and Cortina d’Ampezzo in terms of topography. Beijing, like Cortina, hosted an Olympic Games prior to bidding for the Winter Olympic Games.

As for Calgary and Almaty themselves, the two have bidding histories that are very much alike. Calgary’s 1988 attempt had the experience of three Canadian Winter Olympic (1962, 1968, 1972) bids that failed before it. Almaty bid for the 2014 Olympic Games, but ultimately wasn’t selected as a candidate city. It then launched an exploratory committee for 2018, but elected not to bid in order to prepare a stronger one for 2022. Both of the bids built upon prior failures in order to create one capable of winning.

From a population and space standpoint, Calgary and Almaty are similar.  In 1988, Calgary’s population was about 657,000 people while Almaty’s 1989 population was 1,071,900 as a part of the USSR. In 2013, Calgary had a population of 1,214,839 while Almaty’s 2015 population is 1,552,349. These population numbers are strengthened when noting that the cities are about the same physical size as well, with Calgary being 825.2 km2 and Almaty being 682 km2. While Almaty is a bit more populated and has a larger population density, the two cities are similar when compared to the others in their respective geographic areas. The two cities also share similar economies, as they both use the oil rich land that surrounds them to fuel their growing energy industries.

The two share some common themes in the physical planning of the bids as well. One of Calgary’s main goals was to invigorate the downtown area, and did so through festivals and venues located in and near downtown Calgary. Almaty’s bid featured plans to utilize the Games as a way to grow their downtown as well by creating the Olympic city cluster in downtown Almaty. This cluster will build new venues, shopping centers, and other cultural areas in a way that “ideally” connects the master plan of Almaty with their Olympic Bid.

Calgary’s Olympic Park, pictured above, is one of the existing legacies from the 1988 Olympics that still remain as a widely used part of downtown Calgary. Photo: abdallahh from Montréal, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Calgary’s Olympic Park, pictured above, is one of the existing legacies from the 1988 Olympics that still remain as a widely used part of downtown Calgary. Photo: abdallahh from Montréal, Canada via Wikimedia Commons.

The cities also share a similarity with mountain venues that posed problems. Calgary’s Nakiska mountain venue turned out to be one of the more expensive parts of their bid. The venue required $19 million (USD) in construction costs as well as $3.75 million in snowmaking equipment needed to coat the mountain in artificial snow to bring the venue up to Olympic standards. In response to Agenda 2020, Almaty addressed one of its controversial mountain venues by eliminating it all together. In March of 2015, the bid committee eliminated Shymbulak Resort and Tau Park Alpine from their concept in order to better optimize Almaty’s long-term sports legacy and drive down the cost of the bid.

A view of the Medeu Mountain cluster, the venue for many of Almaty 2022’s downhill snowboard and skiing events, as well as the speed skating event. Photo:

A view of the Medeu Mountain cluster, the venue for many of Almaty 2022’s downhill snowboard and skiing events, as well as the speed skating event. Photo: “Верхняя граница смога над Алматы.” by Kalabaha1969 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Calgary and Almaty benefited from prior commitments from sports teams or to other sporting events, to help create a stronger case for the legacy of the bid. The arrival of the NHL’s Calgary Flames spurred the initial talks of the Saddledome, one of Calgary 1988’s main venues. The Flames arrival both guaranteed that the venue would be built on time and that the legacy of the venue would be persevered long after the Games were over. Almaty benefits from hosting two major winter sporting events prior to the Games. In 2011, the city (along with the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana) hosted the 2011 Winter Asian Games and in 2017, Almaty will host the Winter Universiade. Both of these Games will require the completion of key venues that Almaty’s 2022 bid uses in its concept and it will provide Almaty valuable hosting experience prior to the Games in 2022.

The Saddledome, one of Calgary’s main venues, is currently being used by the NHL’s Calgary Flames. In 1988, the Saddledome hosted the Olympic ice hockey and figure skating competitions.

The Saddledome, one of Calgary’s main venues, is currently being used by the NHL’s Calgary Flames. In 1988, the Saddledome hosted the Olympic ice hockey and figure skating competitions.

Both of the cities benefit from strong transportation systems that ultimately enhance their bid. According to sport historian and Calgarian Harry H. Hiller, Calgary had a large existing light rail transit (LRT) system prior to hosting the Games in 1988 that appeared almost preemptive. However, the LRT proved vital in the success of the 1988 bid as the LRT was utilized for transportation to many of the Games’ events. Likewise, Almaty’s transportation system features an airport that will not require upgrading, a strong series of roads that will require minimal updating, and rail & bus routes that service the city well. In the areas that Almaty still needs to improve on, an already existing commitment to the improvement of transportation in the country with the “Kazakhstan 2050” initiative ensures that the chances of transportation “white elephants”, that are a common trend in recent Olympics, are slim.

Pubic support connects Calgary and Almaty’s bids as well. While no official public support polls were conducted for the 1988 bid, over 20,000 volunteers offered their support during the Games, and many volunteers were turned away because there was nothing for them to do. According to a 2013 poll by the Calgary Sun, around 81% of the population in Calgary would support another Olympic bid, given the success of the first one. Almaty’s numbers are on par with Calgary’s, as a poll conducted in December 2014 places public support for the Games between 79 – 85% for those who live in Almaty and at 87% for Kazakh residents. This support comes at a time where opposition to the Games is at an all time high (as seen in the vehement opposition to the Boston 2024 Games), and may very well be valued highly by the IOC.

Finally, one thing that both Calgary and Almaty share is that they’re both using the Games to help knock off a chip on their shoulders. Prior to 1988, Calgary was largely only known for the Calgary Stampede and, consequently, had a “Cowboy town” reputation. Through bidding, winning, and hosting the Games, Calgary was able to rebrand themselves as a world-class city, and a viable economic center in Canada. Almaty will attempt to do the same with its 2022 bid. After losing capital status to Astana in 1997 and being located in a country largely known in Western culture for “Borat”, Almaty has a unique attempt to put what it has to offer as the cultural capital of Kazakhstan, and what Kazakhstan has to offer as a cultural-rich country with deep historical roots, out for display on a world stage.

Almaty, a growing city seated within the mountains, seeks to build upon its diverse cultural history and use the Olympics to become a world-class city.

Almaty, a growing city seated within the mountains, seeks to build upon its diverse cultural history and use the Olympics to become a world-class city.

The 2022 Olympic Games will be the first Games awarded after the Agenda 2020 referendum and a selection of Almaty over Beijing/Zhangjiakou would represent a concerted effort by the IOC to abide by its own rules and stay away from the flashy, more expensive bids that have more potential to fail. Almaty’s planned legacies mirror Calgary’s and give the impression that, should the city be awarded the Games, they could be used to jumpstart substantial growth in the area just like Calgary did. Should Almaty be selected as the host, the city will also be the first to host the Games after the most previous bid (2014) failed to move on to the second stage of the selection process. Almaty would then form an Olympic Organizing Committee that would be in charge of overseeing the execution of the Games from the time of selection until after the Games are over. Should Almaty not be awarded the Games, much of the plans (approximately 70%) will be implemented due to Almaty’s co-hosting of the 2011 Asian Winter Games and hosting of the 2017 Winter Universiade. Almaty also has the opportunity to build on many of the plans outlined in its bid through the “Kazakhstan 2050” initiative.

Future bid hopefuls, especially the confirmed 2024 Olympic bid candidates of Rome, Paris, Budapest, Hamburg, and Boston will be watching closely to see how prioritized Agenda 2020 is in the bidding and selection process. An Almaty win would mean that Agenda 2020 is something all bids will seriously need to consider from here on out, while an Beijing/Zhangjiakou win would pose serious questions as to how committed the IOC is to actually implementing the reforms. As the selection date approaches, Calgary’s 1988 slogan, “Can You Feel It?” comes to mind as the people of Almaty excitedly await a potentially historic outcome. Given the similarities between Almaty and Calgary’s bids and the situations surrounding them, there’s reason to believe that on July 31st, Almaty has a legitimate chance to show the world what “Keeping It Real” is all about.

For more information on the Almaty 2022 Bid, including access to all three books in its candidature files, check out http://www.almaty-2022.org/#/en.

Kyle D. James is Rising Senior pursuing dual degrees in Sport Studies and Integrated Marketing Communications at Ithaca College. He can be reached at kyledjames2012@gmail.com and can be followed on Twitter @KyleDJames.

One thought on “Advocating for Almaty with the Canadian-Kazakh Connection: Comparing the Calgary 1988 & Almaty 2022 Winter Olympic Bids

  1. Pingback: Kyle James ’16 Published on Sport in American History : Ithaca College Sport Management and Media Blog

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