Almaty: In energy-rich Kazakhstan starry-eyed excitement bumps up against cynical apprehension as residents of the bustling Central Asian hub Almaty prepare to find out on Friday whether their city can edge out Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Kazakhstan`s capital before glitzy Astana took over its mantle in 1997, Almaty is the less-fancied competitor in a two-horse race which will be voted on by 90+ International Olympic Committee (IOC) members on July 31.
"Beijing is still the favourite but it is getting closer to call as the announcement nears," Christoph Becker, a sports editor for Germany`s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, told AFP.
Last month both candidate cities presented their concepts to the IOC in Lausanne, with the Kazakhs, who have limited experience hosting international sport events, presenting their bid as "keeping it real" with an abundance of natural snow in winter and magnificent snow-capped Tien Shan mountains surrounding Almaty.
That was widely seen as a sideways dig at Beijing -- where officials admit they would have to resort to artificial snow for many events -- as well as a nod towards the sustainability focus the IOC itself has emphasised during the bidding process.
"Almaty is the city with the hardware for a winter Olympics," said Becker.
"It actually has proper mountains."
By contrast, China, the second largest economy in the world, has vast reserves of cash to spend on the event and the memorable Olympic Games it held in the summer of 2008 in its favour.
The ex-Soviet state, which is also busy planning the sustainable energy-themed EXPO-2017 in Astana, places an increasing amount of importance on showcasing an economically growing nation of 17 million.
For many citizens the event represents another opportunity to shed the "Borat" tag popularised by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen`s 2006 hit mockumentary.
"I hope Almaty wins. The Olympics will improve the international image of our country," said Eldana Bukumbayeva, a 24-year-old intern at an international financial company, who volunteered at the Asian Winter Games Almaty and Astana hosted in 2011.
"These events are a great experience for young people," she told AFP.
Seizing on an uptick in civic pride and patriotism, companies have begun using "Almaty 2022" for marketing purposes, with Coca-Cola recently releasing a new advertisement under the slogan "Almaty or Beijing? It might depend on you!"
But some doubt the wisdom of the bid, which the IOC has assessed against a background of low prices for Kazakhstan`s key crude oil export, economic blight in neighbouring Russia and a series of corruption-related arrests that have tainted EXPO-2017 preparations.
Last month three top-ranking representatives of the project were detained under suspicion of large-scale embezzlement, with many fearful the scandal could affect the success of an Olympic bid estimated at up to $3.5 billion.
"So much money will be spent from the budget on the games, half of which will go into someone`s pocket," complained Dinara Zhoraeva, 35, of the routine graft which places Kazakhstan in the top fifty most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International.
In a documentary aired on state television this month Kazakhstan`s 75-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has also faced international criticism related to rights abuses during his 25 years in power, said "there will be no untouchables" in the government`s battle against corruption.
Local officials stress that if Almaty wins the Winter Olympics it will be nearly ready to host the games.
Seven top class venues already exist with three more under construction ahead of the 2017 Winter Universiade, a biannual games for university students organized by the International University Sports Federation.
IOC president Thomas Bach offered praise for Almaty`s bid during a visit to the city of 1.6 million last year, calling it "serious and competitive."
Almaty was the first city to post a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics and was soon joined by illustrious competition in the form of Oslo, Stockholm, Barcelona, Helsinki and Munich, among others.
But these entrants subsequently dropped out of the race leaving Almaty head-to-head with Beijing.