It may not be the Winter Olympics, but Kazakhstan is hoping that the 2011 Asian Winter Games will promote its status as a world-class sporting venue with future Olympic potential.
The Asian Winter Games, which kick off today, will bring together more than 1,100 athletes from 27 Asian countries for a week of competition in Kazakhstan's two main cities of Astana and Almaty.
The event is considered highly prestigious among many Asian states, with countries like China, Japan, and South Korea all sending their leading athletes.
Today's opening ceremony will be held at a newly build 30,000-seat arena in the capital, Astana. Another arena in the city will host competitions in speed skating, while two other skating stadiums will be the venue for figure skating and ice hockey.
Kazakhstan, along with Japan, China, South Korea, and Taiwan, are considered the likeliest medal contenders in hockey.
Almaty, meanwhile, is hosting the bulk of the outdoor events, including cross-country skiing, biathlon, freestyle and alpine skiing, and ski jumping.
Kazakhs Hope For Third
Kazakhstan, exercising its right as host, has introduced two unusual disciplines to this year's games: ski orienteering, a form of cross-country skiing that tests both endurance and navigational skills; and bandy, a form of ice hockey played on an outsized ice rink the size of a soccer field.
The hosts are among the favorites to win in both sports.
It is unlikely that Kazakhstan will come in ahead of the region's two sporting giants, China and South Korea. But Kazakh sports authorities say they are hoping to win up to 25 medals and a third-place finish this year.
The previous Asian Winter Games were held in 2007 in Changchun, China. The host country took first place, with Japan and South Korea finishing second and third.
Kazakhstan, a rising power in Central Asia thanks to rich energy reserves, has sought to boost its standing on the international stage, and recently completed its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, becoming the first member of the Commonwealth of Independent States to hold the year-long post.
It has invested nearly $300 million in sporting infrastructure ahead of the games.
The country's sports minister, Temirkhan Dosmukhambetov, said his country had a "serious chance of winning the right to host the Winter Olympics in the near future."
with agency reports