A likely means of continuing Almaty’s momentum could be to host winter sports world championships in the coming years
Colin StewartColin Stewart is a senior analyst in Sportcal’s research and intelligence team. He has previously worked on the planning and delivery of major multisport events including Olympic, Commonwealth and European Games.
Almaty is slowly but surely building a name for itself on the world stage, with an enviable geographical location and amid emphatic home support and continuing efforts to open the country up to the world.
The Kazakh city’s recent hosting of the Winter Universiade showed it to be a capable host city of an international event, helping to eclipse the disappointment of the narrow defeat of its bid to host the 2022 winter Olympics by Beijing.
With a population of more than 1.5 million and the largest student population in the country, the metropolis, surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountains, provides a natural amphitheatre for winter sport.
In November 2011, Almaty was awarded the Winter Universiade by FISU, the international university sports federation, having found itself as the sole bidder following the withdrawal of Trentino, Italy over financial difficulties.
The metropolis, surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountains, provides a natural amphitheatre for winter sports.
Almaty was not only willing to host the event, but was regarded as reliable and capable following its successful hosting of the Asian Winter Games in 2011, the first international multisport event to be held in the former Soviet state.
A future bid from Almaty and Kazakhstan for the Olympic Winter Games now looks set to come no earlier than 2030, amid doubts over whether a third consecutive winter Olympics would be awarded to Asia in 2026 (following PyeongChang 2018 and Beijing 2022) – not to mention Tokyo’s hosting of the summer Olympics in 2020.
The question is, how can Almaty keep building its momentum as an international sports host in the meantime?
Embracing the IOC’s Youth Olympic Games project could perhaps place the city in good stead, further consolidating its experience and willingness to learn and promote its youth. The IOC would also surely be keen to take the winter Youth Olympics outside Europe for the first time.
It would have been hard to miss that the event was taking place in the city, and the local population bought in to it.
However, the familiar bane of an outdated transport infrastructure and environmental issues could count against Almaty as a host city for large-scale events. The Universiade provided a suitable test, at times resulting in a backlog of traffic on key routes connecting venues. To host a mega-event, the transport routes would require detailed planning to ensure travelling times between competition and training venues as well as the athlete village are smoother and more reliable.
Air pollution is also a huge problem for Almaty and is at the top of the IOC’s list when it comes to environmental concerns over an Olympic host city. The topic was addressed during the 2022 winter Olympics bidding process, with government officials recognising the fact that more needs to be done to improve the air quality in the city. With 90 per cent of housing fuelled by gas, efforts are being made to study examples of other cities which have switched to using more efficient and cleaner energy sources, as well as improving air quality. Almaty’s geographical location does, however, provide high-quality drinking water - also an environmental consideration for Olympic host cities.
As a result of these issues, a more likely means of continuing the city’s momentum could be to host winter sports world championships in the coming years.
The city’s FIS-accredited facility at the Sunkar International Ski Jumping Complex has hosted stages of the FIS Ski Jumping Summer Grand Prix and FIS World Cup for several years.
The facility has also hosted junior and under-23 ski events in jumping, cross-country and Nordic combined, gaining international exposure via a partnership with the European Broadcasting Union in 2015.
Indoor arena sports such as figure skating, the most popular event on the Winter Universiade programme, could soon find a home in Almaty with the newly-built Almaty Arena showcasing its capabilities in hosting the opening and closing ceremonies during the Universiade.
Figure skating was the most popular sport throughout the Universiade. With participants coming from 57 nations, Almaty smashed all previous participation records for the Winter Universiade, topping the 2,668 participants in Trentino, Italy in 2013 and the 52 nations which participated in Erzurum, Turkey, in 2011.
Public interest was exceptionally high, with 236,744 tickets sold, a feat many Olympic Winter Games hosts could only dream of.
This came as no surprise as the city was branded from head to toe with Universiade promotional materials. It would have been hard to miss that the event was taking place in the city, and the local population bought in to it.
An encouraging legacy from the Universiade includes the use of the Almaty Arena as a national high performance sports hub for nurturing talent. Located next to the athletes village, tower blocks have been reserved for accommodating athletes attending future training camps, while the majority of the remaining blocks have been earmarked for social housing projects, with a small number being sold to the public.
Officials hope that the Universiade will encourage the general public to take up winter sports such as skiing and make use of the facilities in Almaty following a downturn in interest. Andrey Nevzorov, the general secretary of Kazakhstan’s cross-country ski federation, told reporters: “It is important now to further popularise skiing... Owing to such image hosting projects such as the Winter Universiade, the involvement of sponsors and philanthropists, attention has been turned to skiing again and it is now being supported. I believe that in the future Almaty has all the opportunities to get the popularity of skiing growing.”
As a country, Kazakhstan has only hosted one elite senior winter sport world championships in the past five years, in the shape of the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships 2015. This event took place in the nation’s capital, Astana.
This highlights the need for Almaty to secure and deliver world class winter sports world championships in order to prove beyond any doubt its capability to host the most prestigious event in winter sports, the Olympic Winter Games.