In what many saw as a narrow victory for sports over politics, the International Olympic Committee on Thursday selected Sydney, Australia, as the site of the 2000 Summer Games by a two-vote margin over runner-up Beijing.
On the final ballot, after Berlin, Istanbul, Turkey, and Manchester, England, had been eliminated, Sydney received 45 votes to 43 for Beijing, a decision that Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating called “a good decision for Sydney, for Australia, for the Pacific, for the world and for the Olympic movement.”
Kevan Gosper, the Australian vice president of the IOC, said, “Above all else, it was a good decision for the athletes.”
Moments after the decision was announced, fireworks exploded over Sydney Harbor. About 100,000 people gathered on the waterfront greeted the dawn with champagne and blaring horns.
In Beijing, confident crowds had gathered at universities and convention centers to watch the televised announcement, and bicyclists in the city had transistor radios pressed to their ears. Every time the name of Beijing or China was mentioned on television, people cheered.
But the cheers turn to tears when Sydney’s name was an nounced as the victor, and the crowds went home dejected.
As they did when Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics three years ago, most IOC voters ultimately followed the lead of the 12-member IOC inquiry commission that gave Sydney the highest marks after visiting all five candidate cities this year, reporting that it offered more than is required. One commission member said the bid was “bloody near perfect.”
The vote, confidential except for the final tally, also was interpreted by human rights activists as an endorsement of their intense campaign to dissuade the IOC from selecting Beijing only four years after the crackdown in Tian An Men Square.
Among the speakers in the formal bid presentation Thursday to the IOC was Chen Xitong, who, as Beijing’s mayor in 1989, approved the army crackdown on demonstrators.
“This decision puts the Chinese leadership on notice that they will pay a price for the continued abuse of their own citizens,” Richard Dicker of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a prepared statement.
The U.S. Congress took the same position over the summer. The House of Representatives passed a resolution introduced by California Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) in opposition to the Beijing bid because of human rights violations, and 60 senators signed a letter that was sent to each IOC member.
British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and the European Parliament also pointed to human rights in their demands that the IOC reject Beijing’s bid.
Objecting to the interference, IOC members insisted that their decision would be free of political influences.
But Beijing’s rivals speculated that some among the IOC’s power elite, including the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, were quietly lobbying on behalf of the Chinese capital because the Games there would have the most geopolitical impact.
“Sydney is the athletes’ choice,” said Bruce Baird, Australia’s transport minister and a bid committee official. “Beijing is the choice of the politicians.”
Even some IOC members who are sensitive to human rights acknowledged that their concerns would best be served by a Beijing victory, accepting at their word the banners that promised “A More Open China Awaits the Olympics in 2000.”
“If Beijing had won, some would have said it was a great opportunity for significant change because of all the attention that would have been focused on China for the next seven years,” said Anita DeFrantz, an IOC executive board member from Los Angeles. “Some would say that opportunity has been lost.”
One of those is Richard Pound of Canada, who said a Beijing victory would have been a “made-in-heaven opportunity” for human rights activists.
According to the IOC’s marketing experts, an equally extraordinary opportunity would have been available to corporate sponsors, who would have been more eager than ever to invest in the Olympics if it gave them access to China’s 1.2 billion consumers.
But Pound, chairman of the IOC’s finance committee, said he doubts that this was a factor in any of the members’ votes.
“If there was a divergence in this vote, it was clearly between the risk takers and the non-risk takers,” he said.
Istanbul was eliminated on the first ballot when it received the fewest votes, Berlin on the second.
“It came down to the old third-party squeeze, and we were the ones squeezed,” said Bob Scott, head of the Manchester bid committee that for the second time failed to win.
Beijing led the first three rounds of voting, then lost to Sydney in the fourth.
“The IOC chose the secure and constant as represented by Sydney instead of moving in a new direction to China,” Gosper said.
“But the best words the Olympic movement could hear tomorrow is that Beijing plans to bid again for 2004.”
Wei Jizhong, secretary general of Beijing’s bid committee, said the possibility will be discussed.
“Of course, we are very disappointed, but the people of Sydney conducted themselves in a sportsmanlike way,” Wei said.
In Beijing, officials and Olympic bid organizers strained to put a good face on defeat, in part to overcome the perceived threat by one senior Olympic official earlier in the week to boycott the 1996 Games in Atlanta if Beijing did not get the nod.
“Bidding for the Olympics itself is an important step in our reform and open policy,” Li Tieying, a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo and Central Committee, said in a conciliatory message to the Beijing Olympic bid delegation.
Another high-ranking bid committee official, Zhang Baifa had said earlier that China might consider boycotting the Atlanta Games as “revenge” for U.S. congressional opposition to Beijing, a threat that government officials said later had been misinterpreted.
Asked in Monte Carlo whether a boycott might be considered, now that Beijing has lost, Wei would not comment.
Tom Welch, president of Salt Lake City’s bid committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, said he believes the Chinese will participate at Atlanta.
“If China intends to become a major political and world sports power, it’s going to have to act responsibly and maturely,” he said.
Times staff writer Rone Tempest contributed to this story from Beijing.