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Thursday, September 14, 2000

Political games off to quick start

  SYDNEY -- They are almost everywhere here, wearing their Olympic smiles, shaking their Olympic hands. Mel Lastman over here. Premier Mike Harris over there. Aline Chretien posing for a photo opportunity.

 So much of it simply window dressing at the beginning of a political marathon called the Olympic bidding process. So much of it expensive and meaningless.

 There hasn't been an Olympic Games that hasn't drawn its share of freeloading, photo-posing politicians, but this time it's different. This time the politicians, committing to the concept but not any of the specifics involved, are waving the flag for Toronto's bid for the 2008 Summer Games. They are all lined up, like ducks in a row.

 See world, Toronto is telling people, we've got our act together. "You have to do that," says Paul Henderson, the new International Olympic Committee member, who headed up Toronto's ill-fated bid for the 1996 Summer Games. "You have to show that all levels of government are behind you. We didn't do that well with our bid."

 The question may be: Is anyone out there paying attention?

 Under the new bidding rules for the Olympics, the Toronto group has no official standing here. They will make no presentations. Their role, more than anything, is to schmooze, spread the word and pretend that the people they are massaging aren't the crooks history has shown them to be.

 Inside the Regent Hotel, home to the autocrats and self-important people of the IOC, there is a colourful, politically correct, multi-cultural, bilingual display selling Toronto's bid for 2008. The display is juxtaposed with those of Beijing and Paris, Toronto's main competitors for the bid.

 When Toronto's display first went up, Beijing instantly complained.

 Why, they asked the IOC, had Toronto got a better location in the hallway than they had?

 That same night, maybe in response to the glossy Toronto display and maybe just because it was necessary, the Paris people had an emergency meeting, apparently to get their act together.

 "It's good to have everyone else paranoid," says John Bitove, the normally paranoid leader of Toronto's bid. "I believe we're setting the agenda here."

 The irony is, they are setting the agenda and there is no agenda to set at this point. The race, in fairness, has really just begun. It's Toronto, Beijing and Paris. No one else is really a contender.

 "If this is a marathon, we're in the early part of the race," says Bob Richardson, the CEO of Toronto's bid. "This is just an informational phase."

 An informational phase with mayors, premiers, wives, ambassadors, members of parliament, everywhere. Doing exactly what?

 Most of the politicians have stopped by to take a peek at the information booths at the Regent or to have their picture taken. Truth is, almost as many Canadian politicians have dropped by as IOC members.

 "The hard thing is to get anyone to come over and talk to us," says one of the Canadian athletes manning the booth. "And when they do, they look at the displays, they don't ask very many questions. I think they come over more to talk to us because we're athletes, and you look at the other booths and there's these serious guys sitting there with suits and ties.

 "Are we accomplishing anything? I can't honestly tell you we are."

 There are three significant hurdles to get through before the vote takes place in Moscow in July. The bid people will have a series of meetings over the next few months with the federation leaders of individual sports, going over plans, venues and detail work. Then the TO-Bid people will meet with the IOC executive committee in December.

 After that, there is what is called a technical evaluation of Toronto's bid in the spring, leading up to the July vote.

 By then, Mel Lastman's proclamation that Toronto is the greatest, safest, cleanest, happiest, smartest, most moose-laden, Olympic-friendly city in the whole wide world may be meaningless unless it's accompanied by cash in small, unmarked bills, the language the IOC members readily understand.

 But that's another matter for another Olympic day.

 For now, party on, shake those hands and spread the word.

 This Olympic game hasn't even started yet but nobody bothered to tell the politicians, who travelled halfway around the world to be here.