LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Almaty managed to win the attention of IOC members. The next challenge is to win their votes.
The bid from Kazakhstan came away with a big boost after impressing IOC members with its presentation for the 2022 Winter Games. Beijing, the long-time perceived favorite, also presented a solid case but will now feel pressure from a legitimate challenger.
"The feeling among the membership was that Almaty probably narrowed the gap," IOC vice president John Coates of Australia told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "I think it might be a close vote, which I didn't think originally."
Members said Almaty scored points in Tuesday's presentations, hammering home the message that it is a winter sports city with plenty of mountains, natural snow and a compact layout. Almaty's "Keeping It Real" slogan is a not-so-subtle dig at Beijing's lack of natural snow or winter sports tradition.
With the IOC vote just weeks away, the Almaty presentation made the contest much more interesting.
"It certainly turned it into a race," Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told the AP. "A considerable majority of the members came here thinking it was a foregone conclusion that we would be dealing with Beijing, so they were agreeably surprised."
Almaty and Beijing, seeking to become the first city to host both summer and winter games, are the final candidates in a race depleted by the withdrawal of four European cities — including Oslo and Stockholm — for political or economic reasons. Also, proposed bids from Switzerland and Germany were scrapped after being rejected by voters in referendums.
"A lot of the cities that pulled out, and pulled out for the wrong reasons, must certainly regret it now," Pound said.
About 100 IOC members will vote by secret ballot on July 31 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In the end, intangible factors of politics and sentiment could determine the result.
"It will come down to just that little indescribable and what's in the minds of individual IOC members," Coates said.
Some key issues going into the final stages of the campaign:
SNOW OR NO SNOW
Almaty is pushing its case as a winter sports haven surrounded by majestic mountains and slopes covered in deep, natural snow. Beijing says it has sufficient water supplies and snow-making capability to provide high-quality artificial snow conditions.
"There is an argument on artificial snow as opposed to natural snow," IOC vice president Craig Reedie told the AP. "Most people would think, it's better the natural snow, but the ski experts will tell you that in downhill racing, it's better to have artificial snow, so where do we go?"
At a meeting of IOC members with the evaluation commission for the 2022 bids, international ski federation president Gian Franco Kasper said 80 percent of Alpine skiers actually prefer artificial snow.
Images of barren fields and hills surrounding the outdoor venues in China may not be appealing to broadcasters, however.
COMPACT OR SPREAD OUT
The two bids offer starkly different plans: Almaty says it presents the most compact bid in 30 years with all venues within a 30-kilometer (18-mile) radius, while Beijing would hold indoor events in the city and the snow and sliding events in two mountain zones outside the capital.
"One is much closer to the traditional idea of what a winter games ought to be, the other is the current trend of having your host city be a big city and you take a bus to the mountains," Pound said.
Beijing plans to build a high-speed rail link between Beijing and the mountain venues. The travel times and impact on the athletes' Olympic experience could be concerns for members.
"That's an issue as people drill in on that bid that is going to become more difficult," Pound said.
HIGH RISK OR LOW RISK
IOC members sometimes vote based on which candidate presents the least risk.
Beijing addressed the issues of snow, water supplies and air pollution. Almaty answered questions on financial risks, hotel rooms and limited experience in hosting big events.
"You don't necessarily have to pick the best, you just have to make sure you pick one that doesn't fail to deliver," Pound said.
China and Kazakhstan are both targets for their record on human rights.
On Saturday, a small group of Tibetan protesters demonstrated outside the IOC hotel in Lausanne and managed to get inside a room where Beijing officials were displaying their bids plans. They were taken away by security guards and police.
Both cities said they would respect new clauses on rights issues and non-discrimination in the Olympic Charter and host city contract.
Human rights will continue to be an issue no matter which city gets the games, but the critics of China represent the more organized and high-profile movement.