BEIJING — IOC evaluators began a five-day inspection tour of Beijing's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics on Tuesday as Chinese organizers fired back at critics of the government's human rights record.
The International Olympic Committee inspection is a key test of Beijing's status as a front-runner in the bid race against Almaty, Kazakhstan. Beijing is seeking to become the first city to host both the summer and winter games.
Beijing officials said the 19-member IOC evaluation commission's visits to Beijing's indoor sites for hockey, skating and curling, along with the iconic Bird's Nest stadium used for the 2008 Summer Games, all went as planned. Later in the week, the commission will visit the proposed skiing and sliding venues further outside the city.
As they did in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, human rights groups have argued that the communist government's restrictions on civil and political liberties make it an unfit candidate to host the games.
Pro-Tibetan and other groups say the IOC's strengthened support for basic human rights embedded in its Olympic Agenda 2020 adopted last year has raised the bar for candidate cities. Rights groups have also called for Kazakhstan's record to be scrutinized.
Bid spokeswoman Wang Hui responded Tuesday by defending China's record in improving living standards for its citizens and described bid opponents as "certain individuals who will seize the opportunity to serve their own interests and purposes."
"This sort of behavior goes against the Olympic spirit and shows disrespect to the big Olympic family," Wang said at an evening news briefing.
"We support the Olympic spirit and the Olympic charter and hold that sports and politics should be kept separate, and we oppose any behavior aimed at disrupting the games in the name of a political aim," she added.
The Communist Party-backed newspaper Global Times also waded into the fray, publishing an editorial accusing bid critics of stirring up trouble and "ignoring Chinese reality."
"These groups need to understand the majority Chinese view about human rights," the paper said. "Chinese people are already tired of their constant manipulation and quibbling and the day can't be far off when the Western world gets sick of them too."
Beijing's notorious air pollution is another concern for bid organizers, and the benchmark PM2.5 air quality reading topped 150 around midday Tuesday, more than six times what the World Health Organization considers safe.
Beijing plans to tackle the problem by closing factories and coal-fired power plants, and junking heavily polluting vehicles. Organizers say holding the Olympics will put added momentum behind those efforts.
Other issues include a lack of natural snow and the roughly 200-kilometer (125-mile) distance between Beijing's indoor venues and those where Nordic skiing and other outdoor events will be held. Work has already begun on a high-speed rail line that will reduce travel time from Beijing's northern suburbs to just 50 minutes.
Chinese organizers say Beijing hosting the games would be a boon for winter sports globally by raising their profile in the world's most populous nation. Although China's interest in winter sports is relatively new, about 300 million Chinese live in areas with sufficient conditions for skiing and other winter pastimes.
Most of Beijing's proposed venues and other facilities are left over from the 2008 Games, leading to significant cost savings in keeping with the IOC goals for a more frugal, sustainable and athlete-oriented games.
In all, Beijing plans to spend $3.9 billion on infrastructure and operations, a small fraction of the $51 billion spent by Russia on the 2014 Sochi Games
The IOC inspectors concluded a visit to Almaty last month, after which Kazakh organizers announced venue changes they say will save more than $500 million.
The IOC will select the host city on July 31 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
At a ceremony Tuesday morning, Vice Premier Liu Yandong told evaluators the Chinese government fully supports the 2022 bid and will provide solid financial and legal guarantees.
Evaluation Commission chairman Alexander Zhukov noted the bid's incorporation of some of the Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms.
"You have maximized the use of existing world-class sports venues; you have taken advantage of your experience," Zhukov said.