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China faces tougher sell in Winter Olympics bid

(Reuters) - Beijing promised a "frugal" Winter Olympics and to harness the event to clean up the capital's notorious air pollution if selected as host of the 2022 Games, but the pledges were greeted with skepticism on Chinese social media.

Along with Oslo and Almaty, Beijing was confirmed as an official candidate for 2022 on Monday, raising a chance of becoming the first city to hold both the summer and winter Olympics.

Officials spared no expense in staging a spectacular Games in 2008, with vastly improved public transport and infrastructure a worthy legacy, but some of the exorbitant venues built for the event became a drain on public finances and a magnet for public discontent.

"If the Winter Games can be held in Beijing, the philosophy of holding a frugal Games will be put into the work from start to finish," state news agency Xinhua said, citing Beijing vice mayor Yang Xiaochao.

"We'll only build or renovate a small number of venues and ... and do the utmost to consider their post-Games use and the use of private funds in their construction."

Though Beijing boasts a number of large indoor venues that can readily host events such as skating and ice hockey, co-host Zhangjiakou, a little-known city some 200 kilometres northwest of the capital, will require substantial infrastructure.

Currently a three-hour drive apart, officials have slated building a multi-billion yuan high-speed rail-link to cut traveling time between the host cities to less than an hour.

A successful bid would also mean lavish expenditure on the skiing venues in the mountains near Zhangjiakou and Beijing.

The huge expense devoted to the 2008 Games was largely brushed aside by the huge swell of pride in hosting them for the first time.

Support for 2022 is also overwhelming, according to state media, which cited a survey earlier this year showing more than 90 percent of people in Beijing and the country at large backed the bid.

Some of the commentary that greeted Beijing's confirmation on Tuesday was less enthusiastic, however.

"There still needs to be a calm economic perspective behind the hosting of an exciting sporting event," one pundit on Internet news portal Sohu.com wrote.

"According to the city government publicity, we often only see the benefits but it's not easy to know the costs."

Amid excited posts on government news websites, some Internet users called for a boycott.

"It's so not necessary, what's this frugal idea? Being the host is a huge waste of money and manpower. (China) should withdraw," read one post on Chinanews.com.

Though the IOC commended Beijing's government and public support for the Games, the bid scored weakest among the three candidate cities on environmental impact.

The capital remains choked with smog for much of the year, while much of northern China faces huge water shortages.

Though winters are cold in Beijing, sometimes bitterly so, the mountains that surround the capital to the north and west also rarely see snow.

The problem of melting snow was overcome at both the Sochi Games and at Vancouver in 2010, and resorts near Beijing regularly employ snow cannons to keep brown hill-sides covered with ski-able terrain.

Sourcing the water in northern China, which regularly battles crippling drought, may place a strain on water supplies, according to Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based NGO.

"Some sort of research should be done as to where the water comes from," Ma told Reuters.

"As with golf courses, there's always a good way and a bad way to manage water at skiing ranges and resorts ... There could be a significant impact if they don't manage it well."

Beijing has long pledged to clean up its air, and organizers claimed the 2008 Games would help. Smog still blankets the city on most days and the measured pollutants far exceed World Health Organization standards.

Six years on, Fang Li, vice-head of Beijing's environmental bureau, has returned to the same theme for the 2022 Games.

The bid should help the city "clean up the air", state media quoted him as saying.

Beijing ordered local industry to shut down for weeks to help clean the air during the 2008 Games. The smog returned after the closing ceremony.

Ma said he hoped for more meaningful measures if the IOC elects Beijing in July, 2015.

"I hope that this time if we do host the Games, there would be more long-term solutions, not just temporary measures."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)

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