By Julian Linden
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The global economic crisis and the shifting power-base of world sport have left the International Olympic Committee (IOC) facing a difficult decision.
On Friday, in a convention center in downtown Kuala Lumpur, the IOC membership will cast their vote to decide the host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
In normal times, the election of an Olympic host city is a hotly-contested event with the candidates hosting lavish receptions and tuning on the offensive charm to win the right to stage one of the biggest festivals in world sport.
But not this time. There are only two candidates, both somewhat unlikely; Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, ensuring that Asia will host three Olympics in a row after Pyeongchang, South Korea was awarded the 2018 Winter Games and Tokyo the 2022 Summer Games.
For the IOC, it is a double-edged sword. The appeal of taking the biggest events to Asia, home to more than half of the world's population and boasting the fastest growing regional economy in the world, is obvious and irresistible.
But it is the lack of interest from other parts of the world that worries the IOC. Four different candidates from Europe originally entered the bidding race, but all dropped out, mostly because of the escalating costs.
Last week, Tokyo were forced to scrap their plans for their new national stadium, which will be the centerpiece of the 2020 Summer Games, for a cheaper version.
This week, Boston pulled out of the running for the 2024 Summer Games, two years even before the vote takes place.
The IOC has already taken steps to address the issue, introducing a range of new reforms at the end of last year, called Olympic Agenda 2020.
Designed to make the bidding and staging of the Olympics much cheaper, they will kick in for the 2024 bidding race although both Beijing and Almaty have already embraced elements in their proposed plans.
"There are positive signs that we are moving in the right direction," the IOC president Thomas Bach said at Thursday's official opening of the session.
"Olympic Agenda 2020 gives us a clear vision of where we are headed, how we can protect the uniqueness of the Olympic Games and strengthen Olympic values in society.
"But this is not the time to look back – our focus has to be on the road ahead."
For the IOC, the choice between Beijing and Almaty is still a tricky one. The Chinese capital is the clear favorite but it's not quite the David v Goliath battle most would expect.
Money is not a problem for either candidate. Both have rapidly growing economies and a lot of the facilities already in place.
Beijing has a proven record, having hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008. If chosen for 2022, Beijing would become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
The bidding committee plans to use many of the buildings that hosted events in 2008 for the indoor ice events in 2022, but the outdoor events present more problems.
The two mountain venues, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, are 60 and 140 kilometers away, and can only be reached by an as-yet unbuilt high-speed train.
And the mountains don't get enough natural snow for the alpine events, forcing organizers to cover the slopes with tonnes of man-made flakes.
Almaty, by comparison, is a winter wonderland. Nestled in Central Asia, the financial capital of Kazakhstan is surrounded by 4,000 meter mountains in the Tien Shan ranges.
The second-largest former Soviet oil producer after Russia, Kazakhstan bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics but failed to make it past the first round and hopes that winning the vote this time will help develop businesses beyond the energy sector as oil prices fall.
"This bid is about more than sport for us," Almaty 2022 vice-chairman Andrey Kryukov said. "It's about our future."
One sure thing the IOC knows is that it will be criticized for whichever city it picks with human rights bodies heavily critical of both candidates.
The IOC has for years been criticized by human rights groups, most notably after awarding the Summer Games to Beijing in 2008 and the Winter Games to Russia's Sochi in 2014, but has since added anti-discrimination clauses to the host city contract.
"In all these talks we made it very clear what our responsibility is and what the limits are. This responsibility is to ensure that the Principles of the Olympic Charter and the Host City Contract are fully respected in the context of the Olympic Games," Bach said.
"That means for all participants and for all directly Olympic-related issues. This includes among many other matters the principles of non-discrimination and the right to freely report from the Olympic Games.
"Outside the context of the Olympic Games the IOC has to respect the laws of sovereign states. The IOC is not a world Government. Governments have their own responsibilities."
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)