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Kazakhstan Readies to Welcome the World to the 2011 Asian Winter Games

By Steven McShane and Matt Schaeffer

2011 Asian Winter Gamesrbi the Snow Leopard is smiling. He knows he is about to become a global star.For Irbi is the mascot of the seventh Asian Winter Games, scheduled to open in Kazakhstan on January 30th, 2011. On that day the Torch for the games will complete its long journey from Kuwait, where the Olympic Council of Asia is based, to Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana, where the Games will commence.

The Games might attract little attention in the West, but Irbi the Snow Leopard isn’t worried. The government of Kazakhstan has already invested more than $1 billion to host the Games. And like the canny business people they are, the Kazakhs know it is money well spent.

Twenty-two years ago, the huge investment made by the city of Seoul to host the Olympic Games was as shrewd a move as the government of South Korea ever made. Reason: Within a single fortnight, that sporting event confirmed to the world that South Korea had finally arrived on the global stage.

So the people of Kazakhstan have high hopes that their hosting of the 7th Asian Winter Games – from January 30 to February 6, 2011 – will put their nation firmly on the world’s sporting, economic and political map.

All of the previous six Asian Winter Games, held every four years between 1986 and 2007, were hosted by Japan, China and South Korea. But now the ancient land of Kazakhstan
will have its chance to show the world its legendary hospitality.

Kazakhstan poured more than $726 million into constructing new facilities and renovating old ones to host the Games. Another $250 million was raised from private sources to construct the new Olympic Village where the athletes will stay.

The final touches are being put on that vast array of new sporting facilities. The gala opening ceremonies will be held in Kazakhstan’s stunning new capital of Astana, while the formal closing will take place in the country’s dynamic business center, Almaty.

Kazakhstan’s athletes have competed in previous Winter Games, winning 14 medals in the 1996 Games, and 10 in the 1999 Games. But there is much anticipation that because the Kazakh athletes will at last be playing inside their own homeland, they will play harder than ever before, and thus perhaps may take home even more gold come January and February.

In previous Asian Winter Games, there were fewer than ten competing nations. This time, Kazakhstan’s players will find themselves competing against athletes from 45 countries -- including first-time participants, such as those from the island nation of the Maldives.

There will be 12 different winter sports on offer at the 7th Asian Winter Games; but in addition to such traditional winter events as ski jumping, figure and speed skating, ice hockey, snow boarding and cross-country skiing, the Games in Astana and Almaty will include for the first time the little known sport of bandy, with Kazakhstan playing against such tough rivals as Mongolia, China, India and Kyrgyzstan. The 400-year-old sport is similar to hockey, but played on a much larger ice rink with a ball rather than a puck.

While the question of who may take home the most medals at the 7th Asian Winter Games will not be known until February, one thing is certain: The facilities which the host-nation are providing for the international athletes will be absolutely world class.

The Palace of Sports, which can hold more than 15,000 spectators will be a key location for several events. The Central Stadium in Almaty has been completely renovated as has the city’s Medeo Skating Rink and the Shimbulak Ski Resort, which has seen its ski runs increased from a modest five kilometers to more than 50 kilometers.

On January 1, 2011, the flaming torch of the Asian Games will travel from Kuwait to Changchun, China, and then onto Almaty by 3 January. The famous sporting flame will then be carried through the streets of the old Kazakh capital before being carried for 27 days all over the sprawling nation (ninth largest in the world) before finally arriving in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana to mark the opening ceremony of the 7th Asian Games on January 30.

Kazakhstan’s Minister of Sports, Temirkhan Dosmukhambetov, said that major sports events can often increase tourist flow into the host nation by as much as 50 percent. And Khairbolat Khaydarov, the director of the Almaty Department of Tourism and Sports reports that 15,000 foreign tourists are expected to visit Kazakhstan during the Winter Games.

2011 Asian Winter Games

One man who has no doubt that Kazakhstan’s hosting of the 7th Asian Winter Games will give a huge boost to the country’s fledgling tourism industry is secretary-general of the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Taleb Rifai.

Said the global tourism chief: “Mega-events such as the Asian Winter Games generate a huge surge of interest in the host destination, providing it a unique and major opportunity to shine in the media spotlight. This increased international awareness naturally leads to substantially raising the profile of the host country as a tourism destination, increasing foreign arrivals and revenues, as well as flattening the seasonality curve.

“Mega-events also boost the tourism sector through increased investment in infrastructure in areas such as accommodation, public transport systems, telecommunications and airports. This, in turn, creates substantial local employment and training opportunities in tourism and other sectors such as construction, while stimulating demand for small and medium businesses.

“Having held the UNWTO General Assembly in Astana in 2009, I am in no doubt as to Kazakhstan’s capacity to successfully host the Asian Winter Games and ensure an enduring social and economic legacy.”

Last minute glitches are inevitable in preparing any such ambitious international event. On November 2nd, the official Kazakhstan Today newspaper reported that Sultanmakhmut Shokbytov, the head of construction for the Games’ sporting facilities, had been fired after officials visited the new facilities the previous week and found them still not fully ready for use.

The newspaper reported that Sultanbek Syzdukov had been promoted to take over the job of accelerating work on the facilities and making sure they would all be ready for use by the Jan. 30 deadline.

The Asian Winter Games are still in their infancy. These will be only the seventh in the series. But they are expanding fast. Almaty is anticipating a winter influx of thousands of visitors for the Games. The projected figure of 15,000 is still small by Olympic standards. But it indicates a lively and growing interest across a confident, prosperous and rising Asia.

For Kazakhstan, the Games come at a particularly auspicious time: The country’s energy-rich economy has rebounded very strongly from the global economic crisis, seeing a dip in its GDP growth but avoiding the recession altogether in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, strong growth has returned and rising global energy prices, especially for oil, have created a robust atmosphere for business confidence. The country’s success in weathering the worst international economic storm to buffet it reflects the traditional qualities of its mascot Irbi. For snow leopards are famed for their exceptional strength and ability to endure and rebound from harsh weather and difficult times.

Kazakhstan is also turning more strongly to its Asian identity. Investment and industrial development ties with China, and South Korea in particular are expanding rapidly, and Kazakhstan is moving energetically to list its companies on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the largest in capitalization in mainland Asia and second in capitalization in Asia only to Tokyo.

The Games also come just after Kazakhstan has completed its highly successful chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and right before it takes over the leadership for 2011 of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC).

The role of hosting the Games fits with Kazakhstan’s famed “multi-vector” diplomacy, seeking to increase peace, cooperation and economic growth and prosperity with its neighbors on every side.

Air Astana, Kazakhstan’s national airline will be the carrier of choice for the 2011 Winter Games, a role it will easily be able to perform as its Almaty base makes it the natural air-hub for the whole of Central Asia. Air Astana has also increased its flight frequencies well beyond Central Asia, to Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, Baku, Dubai, Urumchi and Frankfurt.

It seems that the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to approve Kazakhstan as the first nation in Central Asia to host the Winter Games has made Kazakh aspirations even stronger.

2011 Asian Winter GamesAlmaty’s bid for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games did not make the IOC’s shortlist. But if the Winter Games prove as successful and popular as anticipated, Kazakhstan will have a much stronger case for hosting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. No Olympic Games have yet been held anywhere in Central Asia or in any former Soviet republic. But the outstanding success of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing strengthened the case to host future Olympics at other venues on the Asian Mainland.

The vice president of the Kazakh Ski Association and the 1994 Olympic champion, Vladimir Smirnov, said that a formal Olympic bid from Almaty will be forthcoming, if the national government gives its approval. Kazakhstan certainly has the financial resources, the experience at constructing world-class infrastructure and excellent relations with major nations around the world to give credibility to its bid for the 2018 Games. China, Russia and even the Untied States can be expected to look with favor on its proposal. All the Kazakhs lack is experience in hosting a world class winter sports international event, and hosting the Asian Winter Games will give it that credential.

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