Asian Winter Games organizers hope for world class event in Kazakhstan

January 25. Central Asia Newswire

By Hal Foster

Asian Winter Games organizers hope for world class event in KazakhstanJust a few days before Kazakhstan stages the most complex international event it has ever held – the Asian Winter Games – the managing director of the effort showed he hadn’t lost his sense of humor.

One of two visiting American journalists asked Serik Kulmurzayev what Kazakhstan would do to help athletes from warm countries such as Malaysia cope with local temperatures dipping below zero.

Kulmurzayev grinned. “We can get them to drink vodka and give them beshbarmak (a hearty national dish of lamb, noodles and broth),” he said. “They will be happy.”

Kulmurzayev has been running flat-out the past few weeks to tie up loose ends for the sports extravaganza, which will run from January 30 to February 5 in Astana and Almaty. But he indicated in an interview that he’s satisfied with where the preparations stand.

Kazakhstan has spent $1.5 billion renovating existing sports facilities, building new ones and making other preparations for the Games, which the country hopes will help it land a Winter Olympics soon.

The investment has paid off, Kulmurzayev said. A record 27 countries are sending teams to Kazakhstan, with Singapore, Qatar, Bahrain and Maldives making their Games debut.

About 1,500 athletes, coaches and other team members will attend, Kulmurzayev said, with 2,000 journalists and 10,000 spectators expected.

Kazakhstan officials were delighted to learn that one of the spectators will be Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee.  He will be checking out the Asian Winter Games facilities and Kazakhstan’s event organizing skills to assess whether the country deserves a Winter Olympics in the near future.

But he already appears to be leaning toward recommending that Kazakhstan get an Olympics. Less than two months after the summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Rogge noted that “Kazakhstan has already proved that it’s capable of organizing events at the highest possible levels.”

The fact that the Games are on Kazakhstan’s home turf has increased the expectations placed on the country’s athletes.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev has said he’d like to see Kazakhstan take one of the first three places in the medals count. That means the country would have to finish ahead of at least one Asian sports powerhouse – either China, Japan or South Korea.

One of the reasons that preparing for the 2011 Games has been a major challenge, Kulmurzayev said, is that for the first time in the event’s history, the competition is being held in two cities.

That’s because Kazakhstan’s leaders wanted Astana, the capital, to obtain some of the international recognition and economic benefits of the Games, rather than having Almaty, the country’s biggest city, reap all of the rewards.

Because of the two-city venue, “it’s been like organizing two Games,” Kulmurzayev said. To underscore the point he noted that “we’ve had to have two organizing committees” – one for each city.

Those who have checked out the Games’ facilities can vouch that they are world-class.

Prime Minister Karim Massimov said the facilities “give Kazakhstan a good opportunity to become a major (winter) sports power.”

Several of the indoor-event facilities have the futuristic design look that Astana has become internationally famous for.

An example is a combination bicycling stadium and speed-skating rink in Astana shaped like a cycling helmet – a reminder that Kazakhstan’s Team Astana is one of the world’s top cycling squads.

Cycling won’t be part of the Asian Winter Games, of course. The cycling stadium will be in a speed-skating configuration boasting 10,000 seats. The cycling configuration offers 700 fewer seats.

Most of the Games’ indoor events – such as hockey, figure skating and speed skating – will be in Astana, a city that is on the northern flatlands, or steppe.

The outdoor events, including skiing, ski jumping and biathlon, will be in the hills and mountains around Almaty.

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Sports and Tourism is excited not only about the visitors the Games will draw next week but also about the new or refurbished Almaty facilities’ ability to attract winter sports enthusiasts year after year.

The Games organizers enlarged ski runs, built ski-jump facilities and renovated the famed Medeu outdoor ice-skating rink.

Plans are for the ski-jump complex to have five jumps some day. Adults will be able to use the 95-meter and 125-meter slopes that were built for the Games. Children will have 20-meter, 40-meter and 60-meter slopes.

The Games organizers nearly doubled the length of the Shymbulak ski-run network from about 3.6 miles to nearly 7.2 miles. In addition, they made the width of the runs much wider in many places.

Organizers had hoped there would be enough snow in the mountains to prevent what Kulmurzayev calls “the Vancouver problem” – the lack of snow that dogged the 2010 Olympic Games in Canada.

The mountains around the Almaty area have had less snow than usual this season, however, so organizers have had to use machines to create snow for the skiing facilities.

The Games organizers plan a spectacular opening ceremony in the 30,000-seat Astana Soccer Stadium.

They’re keeping the scenario, which is being prepared by a team of Russians, Britons and Australians, under wraps.

Russia’s Alexey Sechenov, who is orchestrating the program, promised that spectators will see “some tricks, techniques and special effects” that have “never been used anywhere else.”

One of the few hints the ceremony team has conveyed is that the stadium’s roof, which is retractable, will become a 7,000-yard-long screen for visual effects.