Beijing looks fair bet for 2022 Winter Games, despite lack of enthusiasm

People walk past a installation in the shape of a fan bearing the bidding logo of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
People walk past a installation in the shape of a fan bearing the bidding logo of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (Reuters) - Poorly attended news conferences, a meagre global social media footprint and lack of much obvious enthusiasm on the ground; Beijing looks like an improbable front-runner to win the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

With Oslo dropping out of the race last year, citing worries over costs and the lack of popular support, Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Summer Games to wide acclaim, is left facing the Kazakh city of Almaty.

Almaty previously bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics, but did not make the final shortlist of three cities. Those Games were eventually awarded to Sochi in Russia.

Unlike in the weeks ahead of the 2001 decision to award the 2008 Olympics to China when Beijing buzzed with excitement, just weeks ahead of the July 31 decision on 2022 there is little sign of Olympic ardour, aside from a few posters in the subway.

Despite its sporting prowess at the Summer Games, China is not a winter sports power, and won only nine medals at the 2014 Sochi Games, ranking 12th overall. Summer Games are also generally considered a bigger event than the winter equivalent.

Even so, the government appears to be setting expectations low for the public reaction should Beijing win the decision.

In 2001, crowds thronged Tiananmen Square and city streets in an outpouring of joy, following a win seen by many Chinese as a sign that their country was finally getting the respect it deserved on the global stage as a rising power. "I've really not thought about this. I'm in charge of news and publicity, so it should be something I've thought of. But I've not," bid spokeswoman Wang Hui told reporters last week when asked if public celebrations, or watching the decision on big screens around the city, were being considered.

Whipping up popular and media interest in the immediate run-up to the decision has proved a tough task.

At that same news conference with Wang, only a handful of international media attended. Another briefing last month similarly featured few foreign reporters.

The official Twitter account for Beijing 2022 has 872 followers. Its Facebook page has just 502 "likes".

Both sites are blocked in China, underscoring another challenge; whether Beijing will, or can, really unblock the Internet for the Games, as they have promised.

The government says more than 90 percent of the population supports the Winter Games, news that has drawn derision on Chinese social media sites. "I strongly oppose this. It will all be man-made snow, it won't be environmentally friendly and it is a waste of our taxpayers' money," wrote one user on Weibo, China's answer to Twitter.

The issue of human rights hangs over the bid too. Tibetan groups have written to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) saying Beijing has no right to host the Games due to its poor rights record.

Last month Tibetan protesters shouting "No more bloody Games again" burst into a Chinese presentation to the IOC in Switzerland. The government condemned them and said the incident would not shake its resolve to host the Games.