Citius, Altius, Fortius: Kazakhstan’s Winter Olympics Bid

by Nathan Barrick on 8/17/2013

Does Kazakhstan stand a chance of winning its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games?  President Nazarbayev recently approved the Kazakhstan National Olympic Committee’s proposal to launch a bid for hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2022 and the city of Almaty formally filed its application on 16 August, according to Chairman of the Agency for Sports and Physical Education Erlan Kozhagapanov.  The deadline for submitting the formal bid to the Olympic Games Organizing Committee is November 14, 2013.  As of early August, Kazakhstan is one of only two non-European countries to seek the Winter Olympics for 2022, the other being China.  It may have escaped the memory of some but 8 years ago, Kazakhstan submitted a failed bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games – that decision was awarded to Russia’s Sochi and is scheduled for February 2014.

The answer:  “It depends, but the chances are better than some might first expect — a Kazakhstan Olympics would make Olympics Legacy history!”

In the 2014 process, seven cities were selected as Applicant Cities, meaning they successfully submitted bid proposals by the deadline that met minimum standards for further review by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  After the evaluation phase, three Candidate Cities were selected and four rejected, including Almaty.  However, the final assessment on Almaty was, “Whilst proposing a good concept, the Almaty application nevertheless presents a number of challenges and risks, as reflected in the fact that the overall rating straddles the benchmark.”  This was a higher result than the other three Applicant Cities, whose bids did not meet the benchmark at all.  The Candidate Cities then prepare for a more detailed presentation of their bids to the IOC for a final evaluation and comparison.  Then the voting rounds begin, with the lowest vote getters being dropped in each round until a clear winner is decided.  In the voting round for the 2014 games, Salzburg, Austria was the lowest vote-getter and Sochi was second; after the second round, Sochi had garnered over half the votes and will host the Winter Olympics next February.

In the initial evaluation phase of Applicant Cities, the IOC uses a system called OlympLogic,  a program developed by Dr. Norbert Gass based on “OptionLogic”, which uses math to assess the best option in a range of choices with multiple criteria and feasibility ratings.  Olymplogic incorporates the use of “fuzzy” numbers which estimate minimum and maximum scores and attempts to identify potential weaknesses in a bid.  Other estimative processes can sometimes mask weaker results through averaging. OlympLogic overcomes this masking problem by using an entropy principle which simultaneously involves computing the respective performance of Applicant Cities in relation to one another, taking into account the volatility, turbulence, or unevenness of the grades, and therefore preventing the masking of weaker grades and resulting in greater accuracy. According to International Olympic Organizing Committee documents, this entropy principle was formulated by Hermann von Helmholtz, a 19th Century German physicist. OlympLogic allows the evaluators to account for their concerns about weaknesses in the bids and use Helmholtz’s ideas to measure trust in the capability of an Applicant City to host the Olympic Games.  However, having such a mathematical system by which to judge potential candidate cities has not prevented criticism that the IOC incorporates other “unofficial” criteria into its final decisions or its scoring – such as political pressure, corruption, or other emotive inputs.

Is it only economic coincidence, for example, that the privilege of hosting the Winter Olympics belongs to the world’s “elite” nations, those most highly ranked by the United Nation’s Human Development Index (UN HDI)?  All of the hosting nations for the Winter Olympic Games have been in the top 20 of the UN HDI, except for Italy (ranked #25) and Russia (ranked #55).  The choice of Sochi, Russia, over the candidate cites of Pyeoncheoh, Republic of Korea (selected for the 2018 Winter Olympics) and Salzburg, Austria (Austria last hosted a Winter Olympics in 1976) generated speculation of outside political pressure for the selection.  There was noted speculation that Russia had used political pressure to edge out Leipzig, Germany from a Candidate City consideration.

Kazakhstan ranks #69 on the UN Human Development Index, which would mean it would be the lowest ranked country by the index to host the Winter Olympics.  The UN HDI rankings began in 1990, and at that time Yugoslavia, host of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, was in the top 30 most highly developed nations; after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Hercegovina now sits at #81.  The only reason to compare UN HDI and hosting of Olympic Games in this case is because Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev has articulated a national objective of reaching the top 50 nations according to this scale in his Kazakhstan 2030 strategy.  It’s doubtful, of course, that the IOC uses the UN HDI in its Host City selection process, but many of the economic indicators that are considered are common to both.  This fact alone is not enough to discount Kazakhstan’s chances of hosting the Winter Olympics.

International sports mega-events like the FIFA World Cup and the Winter and Summer Olympics do strive to make significant choices that expand the global character and quality of these events, but obviously with important attention towards that country’s economic ability to host the mega-event.  For example, when Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup in 2022, it will be the first time the World Cup is hosted in the Middle East, despite the preeminent popularity of the sport in that part of the world.  The legacy impact of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup for Middle East sports was doubtless one of the criteria for its selection.  In this vein, there is a strong contributing factor for Kazakhstan’s selection to host the Winter Olympics; Kazakhstan would be the first predominantly Muslim country to host any Olympic Games, Summer or Winter.

Although Kazakhstan is very likely to sustain the economic and sports infrastructure ability to host the Olympic Games, even if it doesn’t reach the top 50 UN HDI level by 2030, the specter of a growing security problem with violent extremists in western Kazakhstan might be considered a negative factor.  For this reason, the security issues associated with the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, will be closely scrutinized both by the IOC and Kazakhstan’s security professionals, not just because of the common threats to both Sochi 2014 and Almaty 2022, but because of the similarity in security approaches by the host nations and their cooperation in security matters.  Kazakhstan’s security professionals are capable, not less capable than Russia’s, and would also likely benefit from an increased priority in resources that would be expected if Kazakhstan wins an Olympic host city bid.  In any case, Sochi 2014 security will be a strong indicator of whether security considerations would be a detractor for the Almaty 2022 bid.  It is worth noting that the IOC selection of Candidate Cities for the 2022 Games will not occur until July 2014, months after the Sochi Games.

International criticism of the Sochi Olympics has not been voluble, but has been raised in the wake of the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 (ironically breaking out while the world’s attention was focused on the People’s Republic of China’s first Olympic Games that August), as well as security concerns from North Caucasus terrorism and corruption complaints given Russia’s government, corporate, and legal kerfuffles of the past decade.  Focusing on security, the early July 2013 announcement by notorious Caucasus Emirate terrorist commander Doku Umarov that he was lifting a moratorium on terrorist attacks in Russia has regenerated security concerns for the Sochi Olympics.  Umarov had reputedly granted the moratorium to allow opportunity for the suddenly vibrant Russian political opposition to protest Vladimir Putin’s election for a third term as President in relative “safety.”  Umarov likely believed that such support might place additional pressure on Putin for reforms or open up negotiating room for Russian presence in the North Caucasus to be reconsidered.

However, a surprising terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon in the United States in April 2013, by a pair of Chechen youth living in self-imposed exile, refocused global attention to the Chechen problem in Russia, as well as linking Kazakhstan and its neighbor Kyrgyzstan to the issue.  Combined with notable failures by the Russian political opposition to mount effective actions against Putin and with the approaching Winter Games in Sochi, the aftermath of the Boston Bombing gave Doku Umarov an opportunity to re-declare war on Putin’s Russia.  Also, the fact that the Russian government did not actually agree to Umarov’s moratorium on attacks and continued to prosecute anti-terror campaigns across the North Caucasus, but especially in Dagestan, likely contributed to Umarov’s “change of heart”.  Since Umarov’s July 2013 renunciation of the moratorium there have not been any major attacks claimed by the Caucasus Emirate, but the organization’s capabilities to conduct horrific attacks is not doubted by security services and expert observers.

Details of Russia’s security preparation for Sochi 2014 have been naturally kept guarded, but public statements have offered insights that the security measures will rely on multiple layers of security, obvious and not-so-obvious security presence, venue access controls, and sophisticated technological tools.  Russia will be utilizing most of the same techniques that have ensured security at other similar sports mega-events.  What distinguishes Sochi 2014 from previous events is the existence of a threat in geographic proximity and with dedicated intent to cause the Russian government pain and embarrasment.

If rational calculus governs the Caucasus Emirate’s attack planning, it would likely decide not to attack the Sochi Olympic Games itself, but instead conduct attacks elsewhere in Russia.  Any attack on the Winter Olympics would likely harm international citizens as well as harm Russia’s prestige, but the consequences would likely be worse for the Caucasus Emirate by raising international sympathy for Russia and it’s problem with Islamic violent extremism.  At present, many international observers criticize Russia for its handling of North Caucasus issues and have been less than sympathetic, albeit admittedly less vocal since 2001, with Russia’s claims.  A major terrorist event at Sochi would arguably shift international sympathy towards Russia.  However, the threat of terrorist attack elsewhere in Russia during the timeframe of the Sochi Olympics is a distinct possibility and one the Russian security services are undoubtedly also preparing to prevent.  It is very plausible that Russian security efforts up through February 2014 will successfully disrupt Caucasus Emirate attack planning and result in a Winter Olympics conducted without major security incident.  If so, the prospects for a successful Host City bid by Kazakhstan increase and it is very likely that Almaty will be selected as a Candidate City and advance to the final IOC selection process, a clearly prestigious accomplishment in which to tout pride.

If Almaty is selected as a Candidate City, it will likely be considered the “Asian” option of the potential Host Cities.  The challenge then would be that only once before have the Winter Olympic Games been held twice in a row outside of Europe – that was in Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake City 2002.  Some might feel like European Russia’s Sochi Games to be “outside Europe”, which would only increase the odds of a return to Europe after the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.  Spain will likely be a frontrunner for contention to host the 2022 Winter Olympics because it is expected that Barcelona will submit a bid that would make it the first city to ever host both a Summer and Winter Olympic Games.  Munich, Germany and Annency, France were the two other Candidate Cities for the 2018 bid and are possible strong contenders to re-submit bids for 2022.  Other possible contenders for a European Candidate City will be Ostersund/Stockholm, Sweden and Sarajevo, Bosnia.  Sweden’s government would have to exhibit more vocal support to hosting the Olympics for their possible bid to qualify for the final selection process; the last time Sweden hosted an Olympics was in 1912.  Sarajevo will likely face an uphill battle to demonstrate the economic ability to host the Games and renovate sporting facilities, but a large amount of Olympic nostalgia surrounds the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics and much international media attention was given to the Olympic venues and the impacts of the subsequent tragedies involved in the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The bottom line is that a security crisis at Sochi 2014 would likely raise cautionary concerns over Almaty’s candidacy that would be fatal to a successful bid over emotive benchmarks such as a Barcelona or Sarajevo candidacy.  If Sochi 2014 runs smoothly from a security standpoint, Almaty is almost certain to gain Candidate City status, but the prospects for surpassing the European Host City candidates look very tough indeed – but certainly not impossible as an Olympic legacy event.  In my view, the prospect of having the first Olympic Games in an officially Muslim country will likely overshadow the interesting fact that Kazakhstan would also have the longest ruling head of state to be awarded an Olympic Games in the past century.


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This post was written by...

– author of 8 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan Barrick has consulted on Central Asia and national security issues with multiple organizations, government and corporate, including testimony before Congress. He is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer for Russia-Eurasia and has a Master's Degree from the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University. His views as published are his own and do not represent any other organizations. Follow him on Twitter @Nates_Notes

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