With the race for the Olympics of the year 2000 down to a final sprint, the contest has been stirred up by a highly charged political issue: human rights.
Controversy over whether to award the Games to China, just four years after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, has turned the election into one of the most politically sensitive in history.
When the International Olympic Committee selects the host city by secret ballot Thursday, the result could hinge as much on politics as on sports facilities and financial projections.
Will Beijing’s bid be undermined by criticism of China’s human rights record in the U.S. Congress? Will the anti-China campaign backfire and swing votes for Beijing? Will China’s release of its most famous political dissident have an effect?
Beijing is one of five cities vying for the right to stage the Games of the 27th Olympiad. Its competitors are Berlin; Manchester, England; Istanbul, Turkey; and Sydney, Australia.
The race appears to be tight, with Sydney, Beijing and possibly Manchester as the main contenders. Berlin has made enough recent gains to be considered a legitimate outsider, while Istanbul is viewed as a longshot.
Three other cities dropped out during the past year: Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Milan, Italy; and Brasilia, Brazil.
“I think it’s still a horse race,” said Dick Pound, a senior IOC executive board member from Canada. “I don’t have any sense that the mass has come to a decision.”
On paper, Sydney is the clear favorite. The Australian city came out way ahead of its rivals in an IOC report analyzing the technical merits of each bid--including venues, hotels, security, transport, environment and finances.
“The bid offers conditions over and above what is required by the IOC,” the report gushed.
The IOC inspectors were less effusive about Beijing’s bid, describing it only as “realistic and solid.”
But the report does not take into account the subjective factors that come into play when the IOC’s 90 eligible voting members cast ballots. Political, geographic and personal considerations can have a major influence.
Beijing’s bid plays heavily on the political symbolism of holding the Games of the new millennium in a country with nearly a fifth of the world’s population, 1.2 billion.
While Australia, Britain and Germany have been the sites of previous Olympics, China views the Games as the perfect stage to herald its arrival in the modern world as a sporting and economic superpower.
“Sydney is the athletes’ choice. Beijing is the choice of the politicians,” said Bruce Baird, Australia’s transport minister and one of the bid officials.
Some IOC officials believe the Games can be a powerful force for political and economic reforms in China, as they maintain the 1988 Seoul Olympics helped foster change in South Korea. This would fit into the reported ambitions of the IOC to win the Nobel Peace Price.
Another of Beijing’s selling points is China’s huge, untapped economic market--a strong lure for Western investment and Olympic sponsors. As the IOC evaluation report put it, “In terms of marketing, there is enormous potential in this area.”
But it is the human rights issue which may ultimately decide whether Beijing wins or loses.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution last month opposing Beijing’s candidacy, noting that the head of the bid--former Mayor Chen Xitong--signed the order for the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989.
Sixty U.S. senators, including 1964 Olympic basketball gold medalist Bill Bradley, sent letters to all IOC members saying that giving the Games to Beijing “would confer upon China’s leaders a stamp of approval by the international community they do not deserve.”
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, has waged an aggressive public relations campaign against the Beijing bid. It recently sent letters to 17 top international corporations, including Olympic sponsors, urging them to help defeat the candidacy.
The IOC has reacted angrily to the political pressure from Washington, saying the congressional resolutions echo the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. IOC vice president Kevan Gosper has warned the anti-Beijing campaign could lead to a Chinese boycott of the 1996 Atlanta Games.
The congressional initiatives have been aimed at the one U.S. member of the IOC, Anita DeFrantz. The former Olympic rower said she will cast her vote “free of political influences.”
There is a feeling among some IOC members that an Olympic bid should not be judged on a country’s human rights record.
“Nobody has to have a halo before you get the Olympic Games,” said Pound, the Canadian executive board member. “Very few states should be casting stones. Nobody’s perfect.”
The Chinese argue there is no global standard for human rights.
“For us, the most important basic human right is the right of subsistence and development for our people,” said Zhenliang He, an IOC vice president and member of the Beijing bid committee.
Some believe the U.S.-led human rights campaign could lead IOC members to vote for Beijing.
“All of us not connected with Beijing hope the U.S. congressmen will shut up,” said Bob Scott, chairman of the Manchester bid.
Mario Vasquez Rana, a powerful IOC member from Mexico, said some members “will not only not pay attention to the United States but will go against the United States.”
Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said he hopes the IOC won’t be swayed by Beijing’s political pull.
“Geopolitics is not the business of the IOC. Its business is selection of the host city for the Olympic Games, and that should go to the interests of the competitors and to the interests of the Olympic movement. We think they’re better served by Sydney over Beijing.”
On Monday, China played a trump card by announcing the release of its most famous political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng, who had been jailed since 1979.
The announcement appears timed for maximum effect, just 10 days before the IOC vote. Human Rights Watch called it “a token gesture of unbridled cynicism.”
China’s late push also included four world records in six days by its astounding female distance runners at the National Games in Beijing. The event was meant to showcase China’s sporting prowess, but some coaches and athletes alleged the records were the result of performance-enhancing drugs.
Despite China’s all-out attempts to get the Olympics, including promises to inscribe the names of IOC members on a monument at the Great Wall, there have been subtle signals that Beijing is preparing for the possibility of defeat. Observers have noted an attempt to lower expectations, with increased references to a potential bid for the 2004 Games.
Beijing’s delegation in Monte Carlo will be led by vice premier Li Lanqing, while Sydney and Manchester will be represented by prime ministers Paul Keating and John Major.
Officials of the Sydney bid, who have carefully avoided embroiling themselves in the human rights controversy, sound confident.
“I think we’re still there as a front-runner,” said bid chairman Rod McGeoch. “I’d say Beijing and Sydney have still got their nose in front.”
But Manchester, bidding for a second consecutive time, believes it has pulled even with Sydney and Beijing. Despite Manchester’s lack of glamour, the city has put together a strong bid that officials believe could carry it through to the late rounds of the vote.
“Each of the three main candidates has a major flaw,” Scott said. “Sydney has distance, Beijing has politics and Manchester has image. It’s the candidate that can cover up its flaws the best and emphasize its strengths that will win.”