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World: Olympic Officials Making Choice For 2008 Games -- Beijing, Or Not

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The International Olympic Committee, meeting in Moscow, will tomorrow (13 July) select the host city for the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. A series of votes will decide among the five candidate cities. The favorite, over Paris and Toronto, is the Chinese capital Beijing. But China's human rights record remains an issue which could derail Beijing's bid. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke explores the issues ahead of the voting.

Prague, 12 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Should sport be separate from politics, or is it impossible to divide reality into different strands and regard each in isolation? The debate is an old one, but it continues undiminished around Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee, IOC, which has been meeting this week in Moscow, decides tomorrow (13 July) among the five candidate cities of Beijing, Paris, Toronto, Osaka, and Istanbul.

Only the first three cities on that list are given any real chance of selection, and of those, Beijing is seen as the favorite. But at the same time, its candidacy is controversial because of continuing criticism of China's human rights record.

The Chinese capital narrowly missed out to Sydney for the 2000 Summer Games, and sports journalist Matthew Garahan of "The Guardian" newspaper in London thinks that will increase its chances this time, despite the human rights concerns:

"There was something of an outcry when they [the Chinese] did not get it last time, when Sydney won the 2000 Olympics. Yes, I think they will get it [now]. There is a sense definitely that the Olympics need to be taken to countries where they have not been held before, rather than just staged in traditional Western countries. China has made a big effort to make its bid attractive and approachable, so I think they have a good chance of winning."

For good measure, this time around the Australian government says it supports the Chinese bid. Prime Minister John Howard has said Beijing has a very strong claim to the event as the capital of the world's largest nation. At the same time, Howard says he "understands" those who criticize China's human rights record.

Not all critics are quite so relaxed as Howard. Ngawang Gelek, the Moscow representative of the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, says that giving the games to Beijing will "send the wrong message to the Chinese people." Gelek says that the human rights situation in China and annexed Tibet is "deteriorating" steadily.

Tibetans have tried to stage protest demonstrations in Moscow. Yesterday (Wednesday) a group of Tibetans, some in traditional dress, attempted to unfurl a banner, but Moscow police stopped them, arresting several.

In Washington, some members of the U.S. Congress are hoping to pass a resolution expressing opposition to Beijing as Games host, because of China's poor rights record. Leading the move is Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, who says such political pressure can help deny Olympic prestige to an undemocratic government.

Countering the criticism, the head of the Beijing candidacy committee, Wang Wei, has suggested that awarding the games to his city could actually provide a "boost" for progress in human rights. Reports say IOC officials are leaning toward just such an argument, on the premise that helping open up China would be better than isolating it. Ngawang Gelek and other critics reject that argument.

Two months ago, the IOC's evaluation commission issued conclusions on each of the candidate cities. The commission spoke in very positive terms of Beijing's candidacy, saying it believed "that a Beijing games would leave a unique legacy for both China and sport as a whole, and the commission is confident that Beijing would organize an excellent games." China welcomed that conclusion as proof that political factors would not be allowed to dominate the selection process.

Another sports journalist at "The Guardian," Duncan McKay, describes the mood of the Chinese delegation in Moscow as "quietly confident." He says:

"They have been very careful not to say anything, because I think they have come to the view that everything has been done [that can be done for their cause], and that all they could do is to lose ground if they were to 'put their foot in it' by talking too much. So they are trying to keep a low profile."

There will be a series of five votes tomorrow among the IOC's 123 members, with the least-supported city dropping out in each round, until only the winner remains.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin will be in Moscow to make a formal presentation to the IOC on behalf of Paris. Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien will also be there to support Toronto's bid.

The economic advantages to the winning city and country will be considerable. IOC marketing director Michael Payne reckons that the winning city will be guaranteed at least $1.2 billion, mainly from television rights, and also from sponsorships by major multinational companies like Coca-Cola. In China, ambitious local companies are already laying out their marketing strategies to capture some of the revenues generated by the games.

The economic impact can last much longer than the games themselves. Australia, for instance, is still benefiting in terms of higher tourist numbers as a spin-off of last year's Sydney Games.

After the 2008 host city is selected, the IOC on 16 July will elect a new president to take over from Juan Antonio Samaranch, who has been in office 21 years. The favorite in that election is a Belgian surgeon, Jacques Rogge.

While the moral arguments continue to swirl around the issue of China and human rights, a study commissioned by the IOC shows once again that sport itself is not the "natural" contest between young people that it once was.

The report says that athletes in the Sydney Games took an average of six to seven types of medication each, with the highest number of substances per individual being 29. The substances were not illegal, but still Olympic officials said the amount and variety of the pills was astonishing.