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Sunday, September 24, 2000

The hard sell goes low key
SYDNEY -- The hospitality suites of the five cities bidding for the 2008 Olympics are all on the seventh floor of the Regents Hotel here. The atmosphere is so civil it's hard to believe the cities are locked in a murky struggle for a prize worth between $10 billion and $15 billion.

 Dignitaries from Beijing and Osaka are forever visiting the suites hosted by their rivals from Toronto, Istanbul and Paris. The Japanese provide several types of sushi. The Chinese offer tea and a slick computerized video presentation. The French hand out a lavishly illustrated book about their capital. Everyone offers pins and says polite things about their rivals.

 Reacting to a corruption crisis which threatened the Olympic movement, the IOC no longer permits bid cities to offer expensive gifts or first class travel and lodging to IOC members. That explains the bid cities' suites at the IOC's official hotel, which are all the same size and adjoin one other. It is only here, and at sports congresses and championships, that bid cities are allowed to make pitches before next July's vote in Moscow on who will host the 2008 Games.

 Given the new rules, which are to be clarified by the IOC at a meeting here tomorrow, there has not been much to distinguish the way the bid cities are promoting themselves in Sydney. This is very much a soft sell. But cultural differences between the cities are still evident.

 The French bid, which has strong support in Europe, is fronted by square-jawed men in suits whose suite has been temporarily repapered to look like a cosy den. Most of all, the French want visitors to understand that "Paris is Paris" and the other four cities competing for the 2008 Games simply aren't in the same class.

 The Turks are not thought to have a prayer of winning the Games. Their suite reflects this lack of buzz. It looks as if Istanbul is only going through the motions in Sydney to ensure continued government funding for sport in Turkey.

 There are about 80 Canadians here promoting Toronto's bid, which is about twice as many people as the other four cities combined. Canada being Canada, there are also as many women as men in the Toronto delegation here.

 Friendly Canadians

 The Canadians tend to be casually dressed, friendly, earnest and well informed. What the Canadians wish to get across is the technical merits of their bid. To do so they have brought with them a brilliant diorama of the Toronto waterfront as it will be if the city is chosen by the IOC.

 The Japanese and the Chinese are quiet and exceedingly deferential. Being Asian, they also have teams of pretty young ladies on hand to make the mostly male journalists and IOC members feel at ease.

 The Japanese suite has been dressed up with a large print of two sumo wrestlers grappling with each other. The Chinese arrived without a diorama of their proposed site outside Beijing. But after seeing that Toronto had one, an unlabelled mockup of the proposed Beijing Olympic site suddenly materialized 48 hours later.

 Beijing is virtually everyone's favourite to get the 2008 Games, but the young women in its suite were unable to provide even the most basic explanation about what would be where at the Olympics in Beijing. The selling of Beijing was left to Wang Wei, the good-natured, urbane, American-educated secretary general of the city's bid.

 Wei, like Kenichi Kiriyama, the Osaka bid secretary-general, said the new rules made the bidding process fairer. But they complained that the new rules put them at a disadvantage because few IOC members had visited their cities.

 "We certainly have some weak points," Wei said, citing what he described as "western concerns" about Beijing's environmental situation and its public transport network. Unfortunately, Wei was busy escorting a delegation of senior Chinese officials around Sydney and there was no time to ask him about Beijing's Achilles heel, which remains China's human rights record and its commitment to democracy.

 The quick tour of the suites enforced my conviction that Toronto has the best plan and the political will to make that plan work. That probably won't count for much, though, when the ballots are counted next summer in Moscow.

 While it's true that the Olympics in Beijing are unlikely to be much fun, the world's most populous nation has never hosted the Games. Paris has held the Summer and Winter Olympics four times. Japan has had the Games three times and Canada has been the host twice.

 It's hard to argue with Wei when he says China's turn has come.