Beijing was selected Friday to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, becoming the first city awarded both the Winter and Summer Games.
Beijing narrowly defeated Almaty, Kazakhstan, in a vote of the International Olympic Committee. The vote was surprisingly close: 44-40. The secret vote was conducted by paper ballot, after the first electronic vote experienced technical faults with the tablets.
Though several rights groups wrote open letters to the IOC this week, advising it not to award the event to Beijing, arguing that China's human rights record had worsened since the 2008 Olympics in the Chinese capital.
Beijing was seen by the IOC as a safe, reliable choice that also offered vast commercial opportunities in a new winter sports market of more than 300 million people in northern China.
The Chinese capital came in to the vote as the strong favorite, despite its lack of natural snow.
Almaty had hoped to bring the games to Central Asia for the first time, but was a lesser-known quantity and viewed as a riskier choice by IOC members. Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov made a last-minute impassioned plea for the IOC to be “brave” and give the games to his country, but it wasn't enough.
The contest was a study in contrasts between the world's most populous nation and a former Soviet republic seeking to establish itself on the world stage. China's size and political and economic might was a big advantage against its northwestern neighbor, which became independent in 1991.
Beijing and Almaty had both been considered long shots when the 2022 bid race opened two years ago. But they were the only two candidates left after four European cities — including Oslo and Stockholm — pulled out for political or financial reasons.
Beijing plans to use several venues from the 2008 Olympics, including the "Bird's Nest" stadium and “Water Cube” arena. But the snow and sliding events would be at venues in Yangqing and Zhangjiakou, 40 and 90 miles outside Beijing. A planned high-speed rail line to Zhangjiakou is supposed to cut travel time to 50 minutes.
China's mountain venues also rely heavily on man-made snow, which was considered one of the bid's main weaknesses and one that was the target of Almaty's “Keeping it Real” slogan. Almaty is surrounded by towering mountains and plenty of natural snow, but Beijing bid leaders insisted they have sufficient water supplies and snow-making equipment for ideal skiing conditions.
Almaty was bidding for a second time, but this is the first time it made it to the vote after being cut in the preliminary stage for the 2014 Games.
“Almaty is not a risky choice for 2022,” Massimov told the IOC delegates. “In fact, we are quite the opposite. ... We are a golden opportunity to prove that smaller, advancing nations can successfully host the Winter Games.”
Almaty portrayed its bid as one that goes back to the tradition of the Winter Games, showing videos featuring towering peaks and deep snow and stressing that all venues are within a 18-mile radius.
Massimov directly addressed the idea that the IOC considers China a safer, more dependable choice.
"We've heard the sentiment that if you do not select Almaty, then you, the IOC, can 'sleep well at night' for the next seven years," Massimov said. "I find that a curious statement."
Massimov said the IOC has been "brave" by, for example, challenging apartheid in South Africa, going to Moscow for the 1980 Games at the height of the Cold War and giving the games to Beijing in 2008.
"In each case, you were right," he said. "So today, we ask you to have faith in us, to have faith in Kazakhstan. Our request is not simply based on blind faith. It is based on facts, the facts that you need to make an historic decision — historic not only for Kazakhstan, but for the Olympic movement as well."
Beijing's presentation played much less on emotion and sought mainly to reinforce the pitch that China can be counted on to deliver, as it did for the IOC in 2008.
"Hosting the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing will encourage 300 million Chinese, particularly the country's young people, to participate in ice and snow sports," Vice Premier Liu Yandong said.
Beijing sought to counter the argument that it does not offer true Winter Games conditions.
"China in winter is spectacular," Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun said. "More than half of our country experiences temperatures below freezing."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press