Almaty vs. Beijing for the Winter Olympics

Posted by Reading Time: 5 minutes

CDE Op-Ed Commentary

Later today, we will learn the host of the Winter Olympics for 2022. Just Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, and Beijing, the capital city of China, are left in the running. It is an odd pairing, which displays the apparent waning taste for global sporting events. Neither city is suited for mass winter sports events, while the only challenger of the Olympics in global sport is the now widely discredited FIFA, whose next World Cup Soccer Finals are scheduled to be held in Moscow and Qatar, themselves not entirely popular in Western media circles at present. 

Be that as it may, the choice of Almaty and Beijing is bizarre. Both cities, although cold in winter, receive some snow, but nowhere near enough to justify any meaningful local winter sports events. Beijing attracts just a few flakes, while Almaty’s climate is so dry that what snow does fall cannot be compacted to even compress a meaningful snowball.  As those familiar with Siberia and Central Asia will know, being cold doesn’t mean you get good snow. It can form huge drifts and look picture postcard deep, but it is dry and useless for gripping in sports events.

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This means both cities will have to manufacture wet weather. Beijing did the reverse of this somewhat successfully in the summer Olympics of 2008, where on that occasion the Central Government both shut down polluting factories and seeded clouds elsewhere to ensure blue skies over the city. For 2022, they will need to do the same; shut down factories, ban cars and reverse engineer the 2008 plan to effectively encourage it to rain, albeit at high altitude, in order to make it snow.  That’s a tall order for a city sitting in a natural basin just south of the Gobi Desert.

Almaty has slightly less atmospheric concerns, although it too is close to desert terrain. However, it can rely upon the Altai Mountains to produce some precipitation, and these remain snow covered all year round. But for one of the world’s most inland cities (it lies just across the China-Kazak border, west of Urumqi) the climate is dry, and as mentioned, the snow that does fall tends to be blown away by gusts of breeze. It is powder as in powder puff dry, not the sort that can grip the edge of your skis. Maybe the Kazaks can make it rain there too. Photos of pretty snow drifts are rather different things to photos of credible ski runs.   

The options are that Beijing will in fact shift some of the events to nearby Harbin, which actually bid for the Winter Olympics in 2010, but failed to make the short list of candidates. Why? Poor facilities and that same dry snow problem. It may be cold – Harbin has an average winter temperature range of -13 (day) to -24 (evening) – but that tends to create ice, not snow. An issue with that is that what snow there is freezes on the surface making it slippery and dangerous, and creates moguls, those chunks of ice that can unseat the unwary. In addition, the highest terrain reaches just 1,400 meters at Yabuli, meaning it is essentially a small hill. Ice Sculptures then rule the roost here, not winter sports, which are amateurish at best. Those are impressive at Harbin’s annual ice fair on the Songhua River, but hardly an Olympic sport. Back in Beijing, the sight of man-made ski slopes with the Great Wall as a backdrop may look impressive, but these are beginners’ level, not the sort of terrain that would attract a seasoned winter sports pro.   

Almaty also doesn’t really have an option other than to send some events to the nearest ski resort at Shymbulak, which is at least sited up a bona fide mountain at an altitude of 3,200 meters.  Yet again, infrastructure is lacking. One 4 star hotel exists, and just 3 ski lifts. It is warmer than Harbin, averaging 0 during the daytime and a low of -7 during the evenings. 

In truth, neither city is a good candidate and the IOC must be wondering how it got itself into this position. But then again, as global major sporting events are now starting to prove, winning them is now becoming more a matter of national pride and domestic consumption for developing nations. Such events permit those hosting them to show off firstly to their own citizens, a sign that the ruling government delivers and the world watches. These subsequently become distractive events rather than world ones, used as political showcases to justify power to their own citizens. 

That has long been the case, yet with unsuitable cities now being regularly chosen as hosts for such events it appears both the IOC and FIFA have forgotten they are actually supposed to be responsible for what used to be a globally interested audience. Maybe, like the Jamaican Bobsled team, Beijing or Almaty could pull it off, and I am all for emerging Central Asia being brought into the international community spotlight. But for the Winter Olympics, it might have been a better option to have provided choices of venues that would actually provide real snow. In terms of choosing between them, and in assessing the better snow and ski conditions, Almaty would prove a marginal choice. If so, the IOC can feel satisfied that China would still win the pragmatic consolation prize of building the infrastructure.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis
is the Founding Partner of Dezan Shira & Associates – a specialist foreign direct investment practice providing corporate establishment, business advisory, tax advisory and compliance, accounting, payroll, due diligence and financial review services to multinationals investing in emerging Asia. Since its establishment in 1992, the firm has grown into one of Asia’s most versatile full-service consultancies with operational offices across China, Hong Kong, India, Singapore and Vietnam, in addition to alliances in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, as well as liaison offices in Italy, Germany and the United States. For further information, please email or visit

Chris can be followed on Twitter at @CDE_Asia.

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