Sports: Asian Winter Games challenge for Kazakhstan

The Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan will face its first major sporting challenge of the post-Soviet era when the country hosts the seventh Asian Winter Games later this month.

More than 1,000 athletes from 27 Asian countries will contest 163 titles in 11 categories, with the events staged in the republic's two biggest cities - Almaty and Astana - between January 30 and February 6.

With an eye on one day hosting the Winter Olympics, Kazakh leaders consider the upcoming international sports festival to be an important test for them.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, himself a passionate sports lover who enjoys everything from tennis to alpine skiing, has aleady set his government the challenge of involving up to a third of the population in regular sports.

"A healthy way of life and people taking responsibility for their own health should become the main feature of the state social policy and our people's everyday life," Nazarbayev said recently.

"Only this approach can guarantee us regular progress."

Other government ministers meanwhile have touted the republic's recent economic recovery and good image in the eyes of Western investors.

"Kazakhstan's potential and economic capabilities are very strong," said Sports Minister Temirkhan Dosmukhambetov. "We have a serious chance of winning the right to host the (2022) Winter Olympics."

Kazakhstan's former capital Almaty already made a bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics but failed to make the IOC shortlist, with officials saying that they would learn from past mistakes.

"We failed because we seriously lacked the experience of hosting major sporting events," said 1994 Olympic champion Vladimir Smirnov, who won the 50km cross-coutry skiing event before chairing the Almaty 2014 bid committee.

Though Kazakhstan is yet to stage a major sporting event, its athletes have already recorded some impressive achievemnets, particularly in summer sports.

Kazakhstan won 13 medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, including two golds, which was the country's best performance since it started competing as an independent state in 1996.

Its professional cycling team Astana, which was founded in 2006 and won the 2009 Tour de France team title, has become one of the country's top sporting brands.

And the entire nation celebrated when Astana leader, Spaniard Alberto Contador, won the 2009 and 2010 Tour de France titles before leaving the team in a contractual dispute.

Two Kazakhstani female weightlifters, Maia Maneza and Svetlana Podobedova, are currently world record holders in their respective categories, winning the two latest championships in South Korea and Turkey.

Then there is athletics star Olga Rypakova, who won gold at last year's indoor world championships in Doha, Qatar with a triple jump of 15.14 metres.

The women's handball team beat Beijing Olympics silver medalists South Korea 33-32 in a dramatic Asian championships final.

Kazakhstan's record in winter sports however is less impressive, with only the 23-year-old cross-country skier Alexei Poltoranin regularly producing top-flight results.

But the country can always rely on its ice hockey team, whose backbone is formed of players from Barys Astana, which is successfully competing in Russia's KHL Continental Hockey League.

The republic's sports chiefs, howeber, believe they can repeat the success of the previous Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, where Kazakhstan came in third in the overall medal count.

Sports Minister Dosmukhambetov said recently he had set his team the challenge of winning 25 medals, adding that he hoped that this would enable the hosts to come in third overall.

"China and South Korea are the event's clear favourites and our main rivals," Dosmukhambetov said. "But I believe that we are capable of winning 25 medals. I hope it will be enough to take the third place in the Games' medal table."