ANALYSIS : Credit Can't Go to Politicians


Until now, the results of the most politically charged site selection in Olympic history were only partially known. Here is the final tally: Sydney got 45 votes, Beijing got 43 votes and the U.S. Congress was completely ignored.

Now that the fax machines have stopped on Capitol Hill, and every morsel of credit has been taken for stopping Beijing dead in its tracks, it's time to set the record straight. U.S. politicians might think they sabotaged Beijing with their high-profile hearings and their bombastic language about human rights, but they are wrong. They might believe they played a positive role in the selection of the site for the 2000 Olympic Games, but they did not. They might feel that they are major players in the worldwide Olympic movement, but they are not.

Do you think Prince Albert was wondering what Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., would say when he wrote down his final choice during Thursday's International Olympic Committee vote? Do you think Prince Albert has even heard of Lantos?

Yet it was Lantos who boldly proclaimed in the hours immediately following the vote that his resolution condemning Beijing's bid "did have an impact, no doubt about it."

This proves only one thing. The 2000 Olympic vote was more misunderstood in the halls of Congress than anywhere else on Earth. Even the Chinese -- who, in a particularly poignant moment, got confused during an alphabetic listing of the bid cities and thought they had won -- figured out this vote quicker than certain U.S. politicians.

What the IOC did on Thursday was to select the best prepared, most experienced and most economically sound city of the five that were bidding to host the world's largest sporting event. That's what the 88 members did. They didn't denounce China's abysmal human-rights record. They talked about venues, villages and velodromes. They simply selected a city with big athletic shoulders over a fledgling upstart.

This was a vote about sports, not human rights. As James Carville would have said, had he run this campaign: "It's the facilities, stupid."

Prior to the vote, U.S. Olympic Committee President LeRoy Walker said: "If China loses, it's not a human-rights issue, it's that Sydney was better able to handle the Games."

Sen. Bill Bradley, a former Olympian himself, understood this. When the USOC grew concerned that his complaints about China might create a backlash within the IOC that would sweep Beijing to victory and initiate ugly rumors of a boycott of the 1996 Atlanta Games, Bradley listened. Instead of sponsoring an official Senate attack, he and 59 other senators decided to take the low-key approach and send IOC members a personal letter, asking them to not vote for Beijing.

The problem for all these bit players is that it is hard to figure out who does what in the Olympic movement. So, instead of picking their spots, many politicians and protesters tried the scatter-gun approach. It got so silly that an organization named "The Friends of Tibet," out of Boulder, Colo., staged a demonstration near USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs last week -- even though the USOC had absolutely no role in the IOC vote.

The irony in all this is that the IOC, which has been accused of making a political decision or two in the past, actually eschewed politics in picking Sydney. The political choice for 2000 would have been Beijing. That is where the 1.2 billion people are. That's where the corporate sponsors wanted to get a foothold. That's where the IOC could have bestowed the greatest gift of all, the Olympic Games, on Beijing's coming-out party.

Instead, the IOC yawned, chose Sydney, and decided to roll the big dice some other day.

So, three years of international lobbying by five cities at a cost estimated at $85 million was wasted on a choice that could have been made when the process began. It used to cost a city that much to put on the Games. Now it costs all the candidates that much just to try to win them. The money is spent on lavish promotional campaigns, gifts and first-class airfare to fly IOC members in to see the cities, among other things. What a waste, especially to a city such as Beijing, where thousands of people would rather know where their next meal is coming from, not how many people will fit into the main stadium for the opening ceremonies. With all this money floating around, it's not much of a stretch to envision some of it winding up in IOC voters' pockets. And it's not as if the voters, or the IOC itself, need the money. Earlier this week, a Price Waterhouse audit revealed that the IOC has $76.8 million in undesignated funds at its disposal.

WWhy doesn't the IOC create a travel budget to pay for the official fact-finding visits to bid cities of the future? Pay the members' airfare, pay for their hotels. Let the cities show the delegates around, but tell them to avoid the extravagance. One of the things that thrilled an IOC member visiting Atlanta in 1989 was that his luggage got to his hotel room before he did. This showed Atlanta's superb attention to detail -- not an insignificant point. But does the IOC really want the choice of who will host the Olympics to revolve around the handling of baggage? The IOC could go even further, and limit visits to bidding cities to its Inquiry Commission, a well-respected group of 11 Olympic officials who came up with a report two months ago saying Sydney was the best candidate. They could report back to the full membership, and everyone could vote.

Such a plan could have saved everyone a lot of time and money this time around. But how would IOC members react to the shock of losing all those frequent-flier miles?

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