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Politics may mean Almaty has the inside track for the Winter Olympics, some pundits say

28 апреля 2014, 12:14

The Olympic Games aren’t supposed to be political, but in reality many of them are.

The most horrific example was Palestinian terrorists’ kidnapping and murdering 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

In this part of the world, the most high-profile example was the United States’ and other countries’ boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

This year’s Olympics on Russian soil also became embroiled in politics. In the weeks leading up to the Winter Games in Sochi, human rights groups and others made world headlines by decrying what they called Russia’s mistreatment of gays and lesbians.

They were particularly incensed about a law that the Russian parliament passed in 2013 making it a crime to disseminate pro-gay and pro–lesbian “propaganda” to minors. The protesters saw it as an attempt to prevent activists from legitimately campaigning for gay rights.

A protester holds up a placard during a demonstration against Russia's anti-gay legislation opposite Downing Street in London

A protester holds up a placard during a demonstration against Russia's anti-gay legislation opposite Downing Street in London. ©Reuters/Andrew Winning

I’m mentioning these examples of the politicization of the Olympics because a key appointment that the International Olympics Committee made this month has the potential to politicize the choice of the host site of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The good news for Kazakhstan is that the appointee – Alexander Zhukov, a friend and political ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – augurs well for Kazakhstan’s attempt to have Almaty land the 2022 Games. Zhukov is first deputy speaker of Russia’s Lower House and headed the team that organized the Sochi Games.

The other cities that Almaty is competing with for the 2022 Olympics are Lviv, Ukraine; Krakow, Poland; Beijing; and Oslo, Norway.

Let me go on record as saying that I’m not suggesting that “the fix is in,” and Zhukov’s appointment as head of the Olympic committee that selects the 2022 venue means that Almaty is a shoo-in.

For one thing, he’s only the chairman of the committee. The International Olympics Committee will reveal the names of the other committee members in July, according to journalist Nick Butler, who wrote about Zhukov’s appointment on the website www.insidethegames.biz.

Those committee members will have their own opinions, of course. But anyone who’s ever served on a committee knows the chair’s power to influence its decisions.

Zhukov’s appointment may prove to be “especially controversial” given that one of the cities competing for the Games is Lviv, Butler wrote.

He’s right. I was a Fulbright journalism professor at Lviv National University for a year. It is the most virulently anti-Russian city in Ukraine.

After the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich stole the Ukrainian presidential election from the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko in 2004, thousands of Yushchenko backers from in and around Lviv poured into Kiev to spearhead the Orange Revolution. That protest movement led to a new election, which Yushchenko won.

Yanukovich finally succeeded in becoming president in 2010 after six inept years under Yushchenko. His refusal to sign an agreement in December of 2013 that would have led to closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union sparked weeks of protests in Kiev early this year. As in the Orange Revolution, many of the protesters were from Lviv.

Zhukov has publicly supported Putin’s position that the opposition political forces who ousted Yanukovich and took over Ukraine in late February of this year are an illegitimate, unconstitutional government.

Zhukov has also publicly backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in late March of this year on the grounds that Russia needed to protect the ethnic Russians living there – Putin’s main justification for the Crimean takeover.

Given Zhukov’s contention that the current Ukrainian government is illegitimate, and his support for the takeover of Crimea, many Ukrainians wonder if Lviv will get a fair shot at winning the 2022 Olympics.

Alexander Zhukov

Alexander Zhukov. ©Reuters/Enrique Marcarian

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a longtime ally of Putin, hasn’t directly supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

But he’s said he understands Putin’s argument that Russia needed to protect both ethnic Russians in Crimea and its strategic interests there – a reference to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet being based on the peninsula.

In saying he understood where Putin was coming from, President Nazarbayev also called for the issue to be settled by negotiations rather than force, however.

Nazarbayev’s stand has to resonate with Zhukov. And some political observers would say it gives Kazakhstan a leg up on the other cities trying to land the 2022 Olympic Games.

Krakow, Poland, also may be wondering whether it has a fair shot at landing the Olympics in light of Zhukov’s appointment.


Poland, which has a border with Russia, has been nervous about Russia’s intentions since the Russians annexed Crimean.

So nervous that it asked NATO – of which it’s a member – to station 10,000 troops from other NATO countries on its soil.

You can imagine how that’s flying with Zhukov.

Oslo is the city that would appear to be least affected by political considerations in the awarding of the Olympic Games.

Although Norway is a NATO member, Prime Minister Erna Soldberg said recently that her country has good relations with Russia, and wants to keep it that way.

Some pundits would say that, with Zhukov’s appointment, Beijing also has a political advantage that could help it land the 2022 Games.

Western Europe, which has long been dependent on Russian gas, has been scrambling for other sources of supply since the Crimean takeover.

Although Europe can’t wean itself away from Russian gas for several years, Russia knows its business with the Continent will probably dwindle.

Even before the Crimean crisis, Russia began trying to obtain more oil and gas business from Asia. It has been negotiating a long-term supply agreement with China, for example. The Chinese have been driving a hard bargain on price – and have had more leverage since the Crimean crisis -- but news reports indicate a deal is coming closer.

So politics could play a role in Beijing landing the 2022 Olympics, some pundits say.

If I were a betting man, I’d say that if Zhukov’s appointment means anything at all, it means Almaty has the inside track of landing the 2022 Olympics.

Almaty must come up with a world-class proposal, of course. But it will do that, as Astana did when it landed the Asian Winter Games of 2013 and Expo 2017.

Photo courtesy of kazakhworld.com

Photo courtesy of kazakhworld.com

Regardless of which city is selected for the 2022 Olympics, one thing’s for certain: Those of us who are both sports junkies and political junkies will have fun watching the 2022 Games selection proceedings in the months to come.


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