Blair basks in Olympic glow

In a surprise decision Wednesday, London beat out Paris for the 2012 Summer Games.

It might go down as one of the biggest comebacks in the history of the Olympics.

Previously written off as an also-ran in the race to host the 2012 Games, London surged in the home stretch Wednesday to outsprint Paris and win the contest by 54 votes to 50. It will thus become the first city to stage the event for the third time.

For Prime Minister Tony Blair, who added ballast to the bid by spending two days in Singapore pressing the flesh before dashing back to host the crucial G-8 summit, the result was a moment to savor. Since his reelection in May, Mr. Blair has bounced back from talk of being a lame duck - or worse, President Bush's "poodle" - to stand his ground on the European Union budget and take on an ambitious agenda at the G-8 summit.

"It's not often in this job that you punch the air and do a little jig and embrace the person next to you," Blair said.

"Everyone's just delighted," says a spokeswoman for the London 2012 bid. "We were in Trafalgar Square and when the announcement was made, people just started leaping around and hugging each other."

The contrast with Paris - and the fortunes of Blair's rival, French leader Jacques Chirac - could not have been starker. In the French capital, it rained, and despondent crowds drifted away after the announcement.

"I'm disappointed," said Françoise Roulet, a retired bank worker, as she walked away. "I'm sure London will do the games well, but we had rather been expecting them here."

The news seemed likely to plunge France deeper into a sense of malaise it has been suffering since voting "no" to the EU constitution five weeks ago, and raising doubts about its sense of national identity.

It also sharpened the rivalry between Britain and France, already aggravated by an EU budgetary row and the latest off-the-cuff remarks by Jacques Chirac - who could have used a boost from a successful Paris bid - about the inferiority of British food.

Few in London were worrying about such culinary barbs in the aftermath of success Wednesday. Crowds in Trafalgar Square and the east London neighborhood of Stratford, where the Games will be centered, went berserk with jubilation following the announcement in Singapore by the International Olympic Committee.

And a formidable lineup of sporting heavyweights brought in to bolster the bid grasped for superlatives to describe the dramatic moment when IOC president Jacques Rogge unveiled the winner.

"It's just the most fantastic opportunity to do everything we've always dreamed of in British sport," enthused British track and field legend Sebastian Coe, who headed up the London 2012 bid. A former 1,500-meter gold medalist, Coe said the thrill of bringing home "the biggest prize in sport" eclipsed his own memorable personal triumphs in 1980 and 1984.

Yet just six months ago, the London bid was clearly trailing amid concerns about its transportation and infrastructure; Paris was the front-runner, its stadium in place and its pitch worked out.

British delegates said that ultimately they won because they tailored their proposition to the Olympic ideal, putting children at the heart of their pitch. A third of the 100-strong London delegation in Singapore were children, the possible Olympians of tomorrow. The British presentation appealed to the athlete in everyone, regardless of status or opportunity.

"The Olympics is about giving kids a chance," said London Mayor Ken Livingstone. "It's not just about cities and governments."

The second element of the plan was to play the regeneration card, talking up the positive legacy the Games would leave to the city. The London Olympics will be centered in the unloved East End, bringing much-needed development cash (the overall cost is put at somewhere around $5 billion, most of it from National Lottery funding) into a downscale neighborhood.

A brand new stadium and Olympic park will be built in Stratford, east of central London, complete with velodrome, swimming complex, and Olympic village. Officials stressed that after 2012, this would be converted into a schools-and-housing complex for east London.

Lacking an obvious venue, beach volleyball will be held at the Horse Guards Parade. Wembley and Wimbledon will house the soccer and tennis matches.

Other cities that competed for the games included Madrid, Moscow, and New York. The Big Apple's bid became a long shot after Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to build a $2-billion domed stadium on the West Side of Manhattan ran into opposition from Albany. Even though New York quickly shifted its proposed Olympic stadium to Queens, the mayor had lost credibility after he promised he could deliver the West Side stadium.

"I think there will be a lot of post-mortems," says Mike Moran, a spokesman for NYC2012. "It's way too early to speculate on whether New York will bid again."

London won despite a poor recent record in high-profile infrastructure projects, including the Millennium Dome and the new Wembley stadium. The much-maligned Tube groans under the burden of transporting more than three million people a day. Even Lord Coe himself stressed that he wanted athletes to come here "to compete, not commute." Major upgrades are expected to the transport network.

But some local residents of east London are still skeptical.

"They are promising to regenerate east London in a way that flies in the face of how to rebuild local communities from the bottom up, not from the center down," says Kevin Blowe, a community activist from Newham in east London.

"Look at the stadiums in Athens and Sydney. They are lying empty. That is the problem," he adds. "I think what we'll end up with is paying vast amounts for empty facilities, like Sydney and Athens did, and as we did with the Millennium Dome. It's quite cynical to raise expectations that the Olympics will be the engine to transform east London."

London has seven years to get it right. "We will start work tomorrow," said Mayor Livingstone. "We are going to give the world the best Games they have ever seen."

Peter Ford in Paris and Ron Scherer in New York contributed to this report.

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