Michael Pavitt

Budapest’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games was reduced to dust earlier this week, joining Hamburg, Rome and lest we forget Boston in being downed in this race alone. Just days before, Japanese officials and certainly a number of residents of Sapporo – although only a small sample size – were bustling with excitement about pursuing a bid for Winter Olympics.

First thoughts immediately point to the 2026 Olympics being too soon, given how it would be the fourth Olympic Games on Asian soil out of five. Should the prospect become a reality, the Winter Olympics would not have left the continent for a decade, as Sapporo would follow fresh in Pyeongchang and Beijing’s snow tracks. At least, we hope there is snow.

Sapporo certainly has a lot of snow, with flurries having been replaced with heavy blizzards at the end of this week.

With concerns about Tokyo 2020’s budget continuing to circle, you also have to wonder whether it would be wise for the Japanese Olympic Committee to start cooking another course of Olympism, when the current dish is threatening to spill over.

Does it actually matter though if the Games remain in Asia for the time being? One official mentioned that Europe has enjoyed a string of Olympic Games in the past, so noses should not be put too far out of joint if Asia enjoys a similar spell.

While the problems around bidding for the Summer Olympics are front and centre at the moment, the apathy against bidding for the Winter version is arguably greater. When Switzerland, a European stronghold of winter sport, are battling to get a campaign off the ground, you have a problem. It is clearly harder to convince the general public that they could use a ski jump or sliding centre than a velodrome or swimming pool.

As David Owen mused earlier this week, 2030 might be a better bet for Sapporo, but it is clear the 1972 Winter Olympic host has an appetite and the facilities required to stage the Games again. It can also promise vast amounts of snow, compared to previous and one upcoming host. An Australian coach claimed earlier this week that there was almost too much of the white stuff.

The Asian Winter Games themselves have provided an interesting taste of the standard of the four major sporting powers in the region – Japan, South Korea, Kazakhstan and China. I reduce it to four as all the medals at the Games, barring a solitary pairs skating bronze for North Korea, have headed to these countries. The added intrigue comes ahead of what Pyeongchang were describing as “Asia’s Olympic boom” earlier this month.

Sapporo has had no shortage of snow during the Asian Winter Games ©Getty Images
Sapporo has had no shortage of snow during the Asian Winter Games ©Getty Images

Without wishing to make too many sweeping statements, Japan would expect to challenge for ski jumping medals at the Games next year, as well as short track and speed skating events, which will also be South Korea’s domain. Kazakhstan, any controversies aside, will pose a threat in both cross-country and biathlon competitions at next year’s Olympics.

China - who finished fourth on the medals table here in Sapporo - will fancy their chances on the ice in the speed disciplines, as well as in the figure skating where South Korea, Japan and Kazakhstan will all contest strongly.

Naturally, their focus appears locked on Beijing 2022, with Chinese President Xi Jinping having urged the country's performances in snow sports to improve in the five years ahead of the Games. 

Arguably this is a pragmatic decision, as it appears extremely unlikely that even with heavy investment China could challenge in ice hockey in Beijing. A 14-0 defeat to a Japanese side, who are not a feared ice hockey nation themselves, does not bode well for their men’s team, for an example.

The gap between these four nations and their competition has been vast at the Games, which is likely to continue in the future, despite the OCA’s best efforts. While well intentioned, their ruling which prevents one National Olympic Committee from enjoying a clean sweep of the medals table, has arguably not had the desired effect of sharing medals around. With every Japanese top three, there was always a South Korean sitting in fourth to pick up the bronze medal and vice versa.

This is not to say there have not been other ideas aimed at providing a level playing field, which have ultimately proved successful.

Divisions in the men's ice hockey gave lesser nations a chance to develop ©Getty Images
Divisions in the men's ice hockey gave lesser nations a chance to develop ©Getty Images

The ice hockey tournaments could be put forward as clear evidence of this. The single division women’s competition, brought about by a limited number of teams, saw Hong Kong finish on the end of a 46-0 defeat by Japan. While the lack of opposition would have probably have seen a lot of the crowd’s attentions wander elsewhere, there is would be little to suggest this kind of match-up provides any benefit to the Hong Kong team. Similarly, what Qatar’s curling teams have learned from comprehensive defeats all week, I do not know.

The contrast came in the men’s ice hockey tournaments, which appeared well thought out and structured competitions. Separating nations into three different divisions added an interesting complexion to the event, rather than wondering about the extent of Kazakhstan’s victory over Macau would be.

Instead we had Thailand emerge as winners of the second division men’s tournament, with four wins in normal time and one in an overtime period. The idea of Thailand going unbeaten in an ice hockey competition is one that takes you time to get your head around. Granted, they played against Chinese Taipei, the United Arab Emirates, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Singapore, but at this stage I would argue that is who they should be playing against.

Rather than being set up as lambs to the slaughter in a top division, Thailand were given a chance to claim victories and have the chance to develop their team. I am not suggesting they could become a force in ice hockey, but perhaps a reward of a promotion could be in order at some stage should they continue to progress.

There is a debate which could be had around formats like this in different sports.

For instance, the European qualification for the FIFA World Cup. Rather than subjecting the minnows to hammerings at the hands of the likes of Spain and Germany, a preliminary competition against each other would allow for the smaller nations to develop and earn the right to advance to face the top sides.

The counter-argument would come in rugby, where the Six Nations appears to be a closed shop, despite Georgia hammering on the door to be included.

Sapporo 2017 has provided a fairly compelling case for nations for development to be placed high on the agenda. After all, how many occasions to figure skaters from the United Arab Emirates, skiers from Sri Lanka and ice hockey teams from Macau get to compete in high level competitions, which are attended by good crowds.