The International Olympic Committee evaluation commission visit to Almaty that just wrapped up underscores powerfully the problem with the one element that is sorrowfully missing from the new Agenda 2020 reforms. If all 100-plus IOC members could actually visit Almaty, or for that matter Beijing, this shambles of a 2022 race might be totally different.
Just outside the hotel where the evaluation commission members stayed these past few days — literally, steps — sits the ski jump that is the symbolic heart and soul of the Almaty presentation. The rest of the bid is similarly compact.
If the members could take this all in their very own eyes but more, feel what is about in Almaty, feel the emotion of the Kazakh people for the 2022 Games and for the movement, they would be impressed. Anyone would.
“Almaty has spectacular mountains, some very impressive venues and a real passion for winter sports,” the evaluation commission chairman, the IOC member Alexander Zhukov from Russia said in his closing news conference in Almaty. “I can say that our visit has confirmed that Almaty is capable of holding successful Games in 2022.
“We were impressed by what we have seen. Everything we have seen shows Almaty is a qualified candidate to host the Games. If Almaty wins the bid, the Games will help the city to reach its real potential.”
Plain talk: it is hugely unfortunate that the IOC has gone through a year-long review process and it is still stuck — without any meaningful public debate — in the same tired situation involving arguably the most important thing the members do, which is of course awarding the Games to a particular city.
Whichever city it turns out to be — the members cannot visit and see for themselves.
And why not?
Because of concerns they are going to be bribed?
That is on the cities, not the members.
Beyond which, the membership has changed considerably since the 1980s and 1990s. The IOC membership now is mostly full of technocrats who hardly need more air miles or more stays in nice hotels. These, now, are — mostly — women and men of the world.
It sends completely the wrong message to the entire world when the IOC can’t allow its members to visit bid cities. Indeed, it’s a loud statement that the members can’t be trusted.
A far better statement in an era of transparency and better governance — which the IOC in the Agenda 2020 reforms purportedly says it is striving for — is to show off its members as models of 21st-century global citizens.
Does that come with some risk? For sure.
Does everything in life come with some risk? For sure.
Does the system as it is now come with some risk? Absolutely. There is literally nothing in the way it is now that would prevent some ambitious city from doing something to bend the rules.
Be proactive. Show the members off. If the IOC wants to reverse its often-poor public image, in which the members are stereotypically depicted as nothing more than fat cats swilling champagne and caviar, better to get them out there and let the world see the stereotype is wrong.
What’s to hide?
It’s hardly a bother to arrange trips in groups of 15 or 20. Now that the IOC is awash in revenues, let the IOC pay.
The way the system works now simply cannot be said — in any way, shape or form — to be best practices.
Not when there are billions of dollars at issue.
See Sochi — where there was literally nothing on the ground when the IOC voted for it in 2007 — and the $51 billion hangover.
More — what is missing when the members can’t go is the real measure of a place.
The evaluation commission, now that it has visited Almaty, will visit Beijing in March. It will produce a report, which all the members will get, and odds are most will never read. Then the two cities will make a presentation for the full membership in June at IOC headquarters in Switzerland, and one more immediately before the vote July 31 in Kuala Lumpur.
It’s one thing to read in the report that it is two or three hours from Beijing to the mountains. It’s quite another to sit in the bus and feel that kind of time drag by.
It’s one thing to read in the report that there is no snow in the mountains outside Beijing. It’s another to go to those mountains and walk around them and see there is, really, no snow and wonder to yourself about the environmental implications — particularly in China — of having to make snow.
Or to tour Almaty — which had real snow in abundance the week of the evaluation commission and always has snow because it always snows there in the winter — and wonder whether the Agenda 2020 reforms, which say the movement is trying to leave a gentler footprint, are for real.
If the members, in this time of global uncertainty, ultimately opt that their friends in the Chinese government — whom they trusted in 2001 for the 2008 Summer Games — are going to get their votes just seven years later for the Winter project, that is of course the members’ choice.
There is zero question — literally, zero — that Beijing would organize the Games reliably.
At the same time, is that what the movement needs for 2022?
Because when you hear what the two sides are offering, it’s clear there is a difference, and this is what the members could have heard if only they had been in Almaty.
Beijing, at least right now, is a spreadsheet. Almaty is a poem.
Almaty has emerged as the first bid in a long time — a very, very long time — that actually needs the Games. Russia did not need the Games. London did not need the Games. Rio did not. Nor did Pyeongchang.
You hear it and feel it in this bid from a very young country, one that is just 24 years old: Almaty needs the Games. The people there are bidding for their very lives, and this is why the federal authorities there can seem at times so uncertain. It’s all new.
The people get it, though — an IOC commissioned survey finding at least 75 percent support.
You hear it, too, in the voice of the vice mayor, Zauresh Amanzholova, an executive board member of the bid, in a vision piece — with the theme “Keeping it Real” — that she wrote recently:
“In 1991, Kazakhstan woke up as an entirely new nation. Imagine the impact that reality had on our sporting infrastructure, from top to bottom, from grassroots to elite. We realized that we had to start from scratch to rebuild sport in Kazakhstan. Almaty 2022 is part of that plan,” a wide-ranging national development strategy that stretches to 2050.
She also wrote:
“We also understand that sport improves lives at every level of society. That is why we hosted the Asian Winter Games in 2011, why we are hosting the Winter [University Games] in 2017, and it is why we are bidding again, for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
“Our bid’s vision also reinforces the true potential of an Olympic legacy – using it where it is needed most. As a new nation, Kazakhstan needs the power of the Winter Games to serve as a continuing catalyst for progress. Moreover, given our location sitting at the heart of Central Asia, the potential of an Almaty 2022 Olympic legacy becomes even more powerful and enduring for millions of people.
“The culture of Kazakhstan is a mosaic that not only reflects thousands of years of human interaction, but thousands of years of integrating different ideas and ways of life. This diversity is the source of our strength and a true example of Olympism at its core.
“This is the new face of Kazakhstan that we want to share with the world, for the first time as an Olympic host city.”
Explain, please, why the members can’t see, and experience, that up-close and in-person.