Race to host Olympics: Let the PR wars begin

Bundled up against the cold, gathered in the gloom of an abandoned warehouse in one of the less salubrious districts in Paris Monday, International Olympic Committee (IOC) investigators were having to use their imaginations.

A French architect was trying to make them see the shabby space as an airy, futuristic glass-and-steel media center for thousands of reporters covering the 2008 summer Olympics.

Whether her cardboard model and computer-generated images were persuasive, the IOC team would not say. But the French hosts could be sure that the people vetting the cities bidding to host the 2008 Games had not run into any rabid dogs.

(Rabid dogs in Paris? More on that in a moment.)

Five cities are slinging both superlatives and slurs in a kind of international urban beauty contest.

But this time around, officials promise, there will be no more influencing the IOC judges with scholarships or jobs for relatives. The all-expenses paid trips to the cities are gone, too. So, the gloves are off in the first test of reforms enacted by the IOC in the wake of the bribery scandal surrounding the selection of Salt Lake City to host the 2002 Winter Games. (Ten commission members resigned or were expelled, and 10 more were issued warnings as the IOC fought to clean up its corrupt and secretive image.)

Instead of putting their energy into swaying the judges by any means, the finalist cities are meant to be concentrating on impressing the 15-member evaluation commission with their qualifications alone. The committee is visiting Paris this week, after a grueling month-long series of trips to Beijing, Osaka, Toronto, and Istanbul.

Their findings will go to the 123 IOC members who will be choosing the site of the 2008 Games at a meeting in Moscow in July.

Which brings us back to the infamous dogs.

That's what's wrong with Paris, according to the Peoples Daily, a government newspaper published in Beijing, which is thought to be Paris's chief rival, and which is pulling few punches in its campaign.

"Stray dogs and rabid dogs are more and more numerous" the daily reported tendentiously from Paris last month. "If this plague is not controlled, it could harm the organization of the Olympic Games."

Though the "Oui Paris 2008" team has said it would not comment on rival cities, it could not resist a dig against the Chinese capital. The new urban environment created for the Games in Paris, boasts its website, "would lead to a significant drop in atmospheric pollution (and not by merely forbidding polluting industries to work for 15 days beforehand)."

The Chinese authorities closed down coal-burning factories in Beijing before the IOC evaluation commission visited the city last month.

The putative media center was just one of hundreds of imaginary buildings that the team is being asked to judge as it examines the technical aspects of the five bids.

Of the 10 cities that expressed an interest in hosting the 2008 Games, five were ruled out early as unfit to organize them because the IOC decided they would be unable to build the necessary infrastructure in time.

The remaining candidate cities each had to fill in a 594-page questionnaire explaining a host of practical and logistical details about themselves, from customs and immigrations procedures to financing plans, from the role of sport in their countries to their marketing strategy.

On Monday afternoon the media center architect kept disassembling and reassembling her model so as to answer repeated questions about access to the building, the disposition of TV and other journalists, and other detailed queries.

Earlier, according to Gilles Smadja, a spokesman for "Oui Paris 2008," IOC team members had quizzed their hosts about whether the planned transport budget included airfares to and from Paris for all the athletes participating in the Games. It does. They had also asked for population and traffic projections for the Paris region in 2008: the local "prefet," or governor, was on hand to provide reassuring statistics.

The evaluation commission also visited Paris police headquarters, to see the traffic and public-safety control rooms, before taking an underground suburban train to the city's main stadium - just an eight-minute trip from the city center, the French organizers proudly point out.

Tuesday, the commission was shown around the Stade de France, scene of the 1998 World Cup finals, and jewel in the crown of the French bid. "One of our advantages is that 62 percent of the infrastructure we would need is already built" says Francoise Pams, spokeswoman for "Oui Paris 2008."

The commission will report to the IOC executive board on the five candidates' technical strengths and weaknesses. "That report is a guarantee of security for the best possible Games", says Francois Carrard, IOC director general. "From then on, it is up to each member (of the IOC) to make up his or her own mind, heart, and conscience to decide what is best. Many personal considerations may play a part."

The 123 members of the IOC are a mixture of sports administrators, former athletes, prominent businessmen, and political bigwigs with an interest in sport from 79 countries around the world. Under the reforms, members must be proposed by an international sports federation, a national Olympic committee, or Olympic athletes themselves. They must retire at 70 (though those elected before the reforms won't have to.)

Some vote only on the basis of the evaluation commission's report, "others say they include other considerations - geopolitical ones, alternating between continents, going somewhere new", says Mr. Carrard.

The IOC has attached increasing importance to the environmental impact of the Games. One member of the IOC evaluation commission is an environmental expert, and 15 pages of the dossier required of each candidate city are devoted to environmental issues.

While the organizers of the Salt Lake City winter Games and of last year's Sydney Games have admitted under-the-table payments to IOC members or their favorite causes, candidate cities are bound by a new code of ethics to abjure such bribes. None of the five cities currently under consideration for the 2008 Games have been accused of payoffs.

Beijing, which has made an all-out effort to secure the 2008 Games after the bitter disappointment of narrowly losing the 2000 Olympiad to Sydney, is considered a front runner, along with Paris.

The French bid, though, suffers from the fact that the 2004 summer Olympics will be held in Athens, and the 2006 winter Olympics will be in Turin. IOC members may be reluctant to give the 2008 Games to another European city.

Beijing's weak point is China's poor human rights record, but ironically, this could work in the city's favor. Some IOC members, says Carrard, "say that the Olympic Games by their presence in a country have been an extraordinary opportunity to promote human dignity and accelerate reforms."

Others, however, feel it would be wrong to reward the Chinese government with the 2008 Games in light of its continued persecution of religious and political opponents.

"We always make bets among ourselves" as to who will win the biennial contest to host the Games, says Carrard. "My experience is that we don't know until the result comes in. You never know for sure who will be the winner."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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