Star athletes pitch for Beijing, Almaty ahead of 2022 vote
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Former NBA star Yao Ming and Sochi Olympic bronze medalist figure skater Denis Ten differ in height by exactly two feet. The towering basketballer is representing Beijing's bid for the 2022 Olympics, and the diminutive figure skater is boosting the bid from Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Size didn't factor into it Wednesday as both did their best to bring more attention to their delegations ahead of Friday's IOC vote for the 2022 Winter Games host city.
On the eighth floor of a downtown hotel, the 7-foot-6 (2.29-meter) Yao talked proudly of all his Summer Games experiences - Olympics in Sydney, Athens and in his home country when Beijing was host in 2008.
Did he ever think he'd be singing the praises of a Winter Olympics bid for Beijing? ''Summer or Winter Games, they all represent the Olympic ideals,'' said Yao, who retired in 2011 after foot injuries cut short his career. ''It's the right time, the perfect time for the Olympics to return to Beijing.''
The 2010 gold medalist figure skaters Shen Zue and Zhao Hongbo were also brought in by Beijing bid officials to speak in favor of the Chinese capital as the 2022 host, despite criticisms that much of the snow for ski events will have to be artificial and the Alpine venues are spread too far from the city.
Yao later appeared at another news conference with 18-year-old Song Andong, who became the first Chinese-born hockey player to be drafted in the National Hockey League when the New York Islanders took him in the entry draft in June.
''It would be a dream for any athlete to compete in an Olympics in his home country,'' Song said.
Earlier in the day, the 5-foot-6 (1.68-meter) Ten, who won an Olympic bronze medal last year at the Sochi Games and has a silver medal from the world championships, was among several athletes to plug Almaty.
The 22-year-old Ten was up at 5 a.m. training at an ice rink in a suburban shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur. He said he felt like the practice venue brought him full circle - when he began skating as a child in Almaty, the only place he could train was at a similar shopping mall rink.
''And it wasn't even Olympic sized,'' Ten said. ''Now we have facilities that are among the best in the world.''
Whether any Olympic athletes have a chance to experience those facilities in the former Soviet republic will depend on IOC delegates who know very little about Kazakhstan. They know from Almaty's public relations blitz over the past several years that it's a country with a proud winter tradition and one that offers real snow and a compact layout.
Almaty's slogan is ''Keeping It Real.''
''We have plenty of water, and plenty of snow,'' Andrey Kryukov, the bid vice-chairman, said Wednesday.
Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan, a central Asian country which became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Last week, Human Rights Watch singled out the bid from Kazakhstan. The group issued a 31-page report documenting violence and discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face in the country.
Human Rights Watch in the past has also criticized Kazakhstan's restrictions on media and assembly, as well as the detention of government critics.
In response to a question about human rights, Kryukov said Kazakhstan was a ''young country moving forward to improve our understanding.''
Beijing's bid has also faced criticism from human rights groups. Tibetan activists and others say China's human rights record after the 2008 Olympics worsened rather than show an improvement.