LAUSANNE: The decision to award the 2029 Asian Winter Games to Saudi Arabia may have been greeted with amazement but it follows a double logic.
For the biggest events, hosts are becoming harder to find than snowstorms in the Arabian desert. For those willing to undertake the task, the appeal of major sports competitions is as national showcases.
It is difficult to imagine a more spectacular contrast than between the Japanese powder of Sapporo, site of the 1972 Winter Olympics as well as the first Asian Winter Games in 1986 and the most recent in 2017 and the mountainous desert of Trojena, 50 kilometres from the coast of the Red Sea.
“It is awful for our sport,” Olympic downhill silver medallist Johan Clarey told French radio,
The secretary general of the International Ski and Snowboard Federation, Michel Vion, said he was “surprised” by the decision of the Olympic Council of Asia.
It is not a first in the Gulf.
In 2021, Dubai hosted qualifying slaloms for the Beijing Winter Olympics in the refrigerated dome of a huge shopping mall with the temperature 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) outside.
Yet the Saudi project, in an era of global warming, raises a host of issues: from the expected temperatures to the energy impact, including the detour of local water resources and the construction of completely artificial ski slopes.
Saudi Arabia has been betting heavily on sport, hosting Formula One, the Dakar Rally, a cycling tour, boxing title fights and the Spanish Supercup and is preparing a bid to co-host the 2030 World Cup. Saudi investors have bought English football club Newcastle and are financing the breakaway LIV golf tour.
The rivalry with the Qatari and Emirati neighbours, regional pioneers in sports diplomacy, remains constantly in the background.
Yet the objective of Asian Games is “above all economic”, Raphael Le Magoariec, a specialist in the geopolitics of the sport of the Gulf countries at the University of Tours, told AFP.
Riyadh “mainly wants to promote its city of the future, NEOM,” he says.
NEOM is a planned half-a-trillion dollar futuristic megacity. The Games would be held in its Trojena resort area. “There are big unknowns about the snow, and even about the execution of the whole project,” said warns Le Magoariec.
“At this stage”, said Le Magoariec, the Saudis have already gained from “the impact of the announcement”.
He also said Saudi Arabia “is not seeking to speak to a European public” but to the wealthy in the Middle East, Russia, India and China, using what he called a “neoliberal logic” which is “devoid of concern for the environment or human rights.
Ahmed El Droubi, regional campaigns manager for Greenpeace, told AFP “the development is trying to sell to those who already have homes.” “Desalination of such a quantity of water would consume massive amounts of energy,” he said.
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