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Olympics: Final 2022 Games showdown for Beijing, Almaty

[KUALA LUMPUR] Beijing and Almaty went head-to-head on Friday, wheeling out sporting and political leaders in a final showdown to secure the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

China's President Xi Jinping promised a "fantastic" Games if Beijing was chosen. The former Kazakhstan capital sought to exploit weaknesses in the mega-bid of their favoured rivals by offering "real" snow and shorter travelling times between sports venues for athletes.

China used giant basketball legend Yao Ming to push Beijing's case and Kazakhstan's first skating Olympic medal winner Denis Ten spoke for Almaty.

China is favourite to win because of its economic and political weight and experience of holding the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Eighty-five International Olympic Committee (IOC) members will choose the winner in a secret vote later on Friday.

Mr Xi said in a video message that was relayed to the special IOC session at Kuala Lumpur's convention centre that a Beijing Games would inspire more than 1.3 billion Chinese to take up winter sports.

"Let me assure you that if you choose Beijing, the Chinese people will present to the world a fantastic, extraordinary and excellent Olympic Winter Games," Mr Xi said.

Former Houston Rockets centre Yao said he was "looking forward to seeing a new chapter in the legacy" of the 2008 Games.

He told how under Beijing's plan, the Wukesong stadium where he played basketball seven years ago would be covered in ice for 2022 and be used for the hockey contest.

Beijing will also reuse the Bird's Nest national stadium built for the 2008 Olympics.

But the rival city from the oil-rich Central Asian republic has seen support increase in recent months with its "Keeping it Real" publicity campaign.

"Beijing remains the favourite but Almaty's support has grown," said one IOC member, speaking on condition of anonymity.

China will make huge use of artificial snow and some of the venues are 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Beijing.

"We are a golden opportunity to prove that smaller advancing nations can successfully host the Olympic Games," Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Karim Massimov told the IOC.

Almaty would stage "a Games that are centred on the needs of athletes and sport, not on the needs of (the) host country's global image", said Andrey Kryukov, vice chairman of the Almaty bid committee.

"In Almaty, there will be no bus, train or car rides for hours to reach or return from faraway mountain venues." All of Almaty's venues are within 30 kilometres (18 miles) of the city, which the delegation portrayed as a "winter wonderland".

Olympic fever mounted in Beijing on decision day.

"The delegation will present to the whole world Beijing's capacity and confidence to host the 2022 Winter Olympics," said the Beijing News daily.

Special entertainment was scheduled at the Bird's Nest to coincide with the announcement of the result, due at about 0930 GMT.

Authorities set up a giant screen in a central square in Almaty to broadcast proceedings from Kuala Lumpur.

The public mood was nervous. The Tengri News website billed the IOC decision as a 'moment of truth' for the city.

Both countries' human rights records have been condemned by activist groups, but no mention of rights was made in the IOC debate.

Six cities were originally in the race to follow 2018 hosts Pyeongchang in South Korea.

But after Russia spent more than $50 billion to stage the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Oslo, Stockholm, Krakow in Poland and Lviv in Ukraine all withdrew because of cost fears and local politics.

IOC president Thomas Bach told AFP ahead of the vote that there were still "excellent" candidates and that he was not disappointed that only two cities were left.

It is the smallest number of cities in the final vote since Lake Placid in the United States won the 1980 Winter Games unopposed.

Bach has passed reforms to bring down the cost and administrative burden of hosting the Games as well as making them more environmentally friendly.

Almaty has estimated a budget of US$3.6 billion and Beijing said it will spend US$3.06 billion. That does not include an estimated US$5 billion for a high-speed train link from Beijing to Zhangjiakou, where many mountain events will be held.