With Beijing long viewed as the favourite in the two-city contest, the Kazakh bid from Almaty made a strong showing with IOC members Tuesday, presenting itself as the candidate that offers a "real" winter setting with plenty of natural snow.
"I think the Almaty presentation scored some points," U.S. Olympic Committee chairman and IOC member Larry Probst said. "They drove home the message 'keeping it real.' That was all about snow versus making snow. I think that resonates."
With the IOC vote less than two months away, leaders of the Almaty and Beijing bids made presentations at a "technical briefing" at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. The meetings were attended by 85 of the International Olympic Committee's 101 members.
The closed-door presentations could play a vital role in influencing opinion ahead of the secret IOC ballot in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31. Almaty and Beijing are the only candidates left in the race after four European cities pulled out for political or financial reasons.
Almaty, a city in Central Asia that is much lesser known to IOC members than Beijing, had the most to gain. It seemed to make the greater impact Tuesday by getting its message across to the members, who suggested the race may now be much tighter than expected.
"It's too early to say but it's going to be close," Swiss IOC member and international ski federation president Gian Franco Kasper said.
Each city was given 45 minutes to explain their bid plans, with another 45 minutes allotted for questions and answers. Almaty went first, followed by Beijing.
"I was very, very agreeably surprised," Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told The Associated Press after Almaty's presentation. "I think they attracted the attention of people who may not have been convinced before. It looks to me like they figured out all of the weaknesses of the competitors and they just nailed the differences — snow, water, air, experience."
The IOC released a technical evaluation report last week that listed serious challenges facing both bids, including Beijing's lack of natural snow and heavy reliance on water supplies for snow-making. For Almaty, it noted financial risks and limited experience in hosting major international events.
Both cities sought to address those concerns, while also pitching their strengths.
"We shared all of our ideas on Beijing's bid for the Winter Olympics and fortunately all of our strengths were recognized by the IOC members," Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong said. "After this conversation with the IOC, we are now filled with even more confidence in our bid."
With Beijing aiming to become the first city to host both summer and winter games, Chinese officials played up the experience and legacy from the 2008 Olympics. They also positioned Beijing as a safe and reliable bid and one that will help develop winter sports in a market of more than 300 million people in northern China.
IOC President Thomas Bach said both bids embraced the "Olympic Agenda 2020" reforms that seek affordable games and maximum use of existing facilities.
"We have seen two bids which respect very much the sustainability of the Olympic Games ... and which respect very much that the organization of the Olympic Games has to be affordable," he said.
The Almaty bidders said they have 70 per cent of the facilities in place, with all venues within a 30-kilometre (18-mile) radius, and can draw on the experience of hosting the Asian Winter Games in 2011 and the Winter University Games in 2017.
"Don't forget, Almaty is a winter sports city," bid vice chairman Andrey Kryukov said. "We're created for winter sports."
The Kazakh bid team also showed photo after photo of mountains and slopes covered in deep snow — as much a dig at Beijing as a promotion for Almaty.
"They certainly nailed the bit about snow," IOC vice-president Craig Reedie of Britain told the AP. "They had pictures of people climbing through three feet of snow."
Reedie said Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov gave an impressive performance that included a keen sense of humour. The Almaty delegates all spoke in English, while some of the Beijing team spoke in Chinese.
Addressing concerns over Kazakhstan's long-term financial stability, Kryukov said the country has a national oil fund of $75 billion.
"It's increasing and increasing," he said. "This is cash."
Zhang Li, a deputy director of the Beijing bid, said the Chinese mountain venues have "appropriate temperatures, abundant water supplies and reliable, existing snow-making facilities."
He said the Beijing bid has three major sources of water supplies for the snow and ice venues.
"We are very confident about the supply of water," he said, adding that the total amount of water used for snow-making for the games would represent only 1 per cent of the annual water supply in the region.
Beijing Major Wang Anshun, president of the bid committee, said two of the mountain venues "already have air quality that is entirely ideal for outdoor sports." He added that China has a $130 billion five-year plan for fighting smog.
"We are entirely confident we will achieve air quality that meets WHO standards," he said.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this report.