Almaty, Kazakhstan – A Kazakh man wearing an Almaty 2022 tie is sweating and praying just minutes before the 2022 Winter Olympics hosts are due to be announced.
Almaty’s Abay Square is full of people, quietly confident that their city would beat Beijing at the IOC vote.
But when the envelope was opened in Kuala Lumpur, there was a huge groan from this crowd. Almaty’s dream was over. Beijing was chosen, becoming the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
Most of the people in the square were students. Almaty has around 50 universities and 40 per cent of the population is under 24. A young, vibrant city was what the bid organisers were trying to sell to the Olympic officials.
IOC members aren’t allowed to visit a candidate city, so many may not have felt what this city could offer.
I certainly had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Kazakhstan. Like a lot of Westerners, all I really knew about the country was the movie ‘Borat’.
The very backward, basic country that is portrayed in that film is far from the reality.
The streets are lined up with trees and are full of restaurants and karaoke bars. It’s trying to develop a “cafe culture” similar to Europe. The people appear to be happy.
Since Kazakhstan became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, their president Nursultan Nazerbayev has increased the GDP ten times.
One of the major concerns leading up to the announcement was Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record.
Activists say that there are restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, that there is no free national media and there is an absence of political opposition.
But even they admit that it was difficult to get people in Kazakhstan interested in these problems. Not because of fear, but because they are financially well-off. The economy continues to grow and people have few complaints.
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country. Wedged between Russia and China, their Games’ bid committee called it a country where east meets west and north meets south.
Even without the Winter Olympics, Kazakhstan has big plans. The President wants to improve tourism from 6m visitors to 10m. Last year, they eased visa restrictions for tourists.
But it’s the infrastructure that needs improving. Their new metro needs expanding, many of the buses are old and new hotels need to be built.
Things are starting to change though. Soon they’ll have their first McDonald’s.
Kazakhstan might have lost out on the Winter Olympics, but this is a young country with big ambitions. It might not be long until they do host a major sporting event.
That sweaty man in the square will soon have his prayers answered.