Archive for Thursday, July 12, 2001

Signs point to Beijing for 2008 Olympics

July 12, 2001


— Politics, sentiment and geography all point in the same direction: Barring a surprise, the Olympics will head to China for the first time.

Despite criticism of its human rights record, Beijing is the city to beat in Friday's vote by the International Olympic Committee for the host of the 2008 Summer Games.

The other main contenders are Toronto and Paris, with Osaka, Japan, and Istanbul, Turkey, considered out of the running.

Beijing received an unexpected boost Wednesday from Mitt Romney, head of the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Olympics. He said the IOC should take advantage of a "very unique time in history" when superpowers are at peace and help open China to the world.

"The Olympics are about building bridges, not building walls," Romney said. "We should not build walls that block communications with other countries, even if we vehemently disagree with their practices."

Romney is not an IOC member and has no vote or formal influence on the outcome. But his statement could carry weight with the IOC.

Toronto and Paris cast themselves as technically superior, risk-free choices. Yet many IOC members are captivated by the high-risk, high-reward attraction of taking the games to the world's most populous nation.

"There is a feeling that it would be good for the world and good for China if they win," IOC vice president Kevan Gosper said.

Eight years ago, Beijing lost by two votes to Sydney in the election for the 2000 Olympics. China's human rights record was a factor in the defeat, which came four years after the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

The current bid has drawn opposition from politicians and human rights groups, with anti-Beijing activists sending hundreds of e-mails to IOC members.

Russian police broke up a peaceful protest against Beijing's bid Wednesday by 10 Tibetan activists near where the IOC is meeting, detaining six demonstrators and an Associated Press photographer.

While critics say awarding the Olympics to China would reward a repressive regime, advocates say it would compel China to speed political and social change.

The argument that the Olympics will change China does not convince everyone.

"It's wrong to think that the Olympic Games will change a political situation in a country," said IOC member Paul Henderson, who led Toronto's bid for the 1996 games. "It's like marriage. If you think you are going to change the person by getting married to them, don't get married."

Toronto waged a forceful lobbying campaign and believes its work is paying off.

"I think we're neck-and-neck with Beijing," bid chief John Bitove said. "A lot of people came here and assumed this would be a cakewalk and they got here and found out we're especially strong."

Several senior IOC members said it would be unfair to deny the games to China, which has been an important player in the Olympic movement.

Other factors in Beijing's favor:

l Geography: Paris loses points because the 2004 Olympics (Greece) and 2006 Olympics (Italy) are in Europe. Britain, Germany, Spain, Russia and other European countries planning bids for 2012 would prefer to see the 2008 games in Asia. With a number of U.S. cities eyeing 2012, the United States (which has four IOC members) might not want Toronto to win because it's unlikely the games would return to North America four years later.

l Sentiment: Several IOC members sympathize with Beijing because of its loss to Sydney. Also, outgoing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch is believed to want to see the games go to China before he steps down.

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