- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2001

LONDON Should the Olympics finally go to the world's most populous country despite its human rights record? Or is it better to choose the splendor of Paris or reliability of Toronto?

That is the decision the International Olympic Committee faces for the 2008 Summer Games.

Beijing remains the strong favorite going into the July 13 vote in Moscow, with many IOC members intent on making a major statement by awarding the games to China for the first time.

Paris and Toronto are mounting serious challenges, while Istanbul, Turkey and Osaka, Japan, are considered out of the running.

Yet the games are clearly Beijing's to lose. Only a major international incident or faux-pas by China before the vote could derail the bid, according to a number of influential IOC members and Olympic officials.

For all the talk about selecting the best site on technical grounds, the decision ultimately comes down to politics.

"The issue is: Do you want to go to China or not?" British IOC member Craig Reedie said. "There is no great political issue in going to Osaka, Toronto, Istanbul or Paris. There is a very considerable political issue in going to Beijing."

Advocates of a Beijing Olympics contend the Games would help improve the human rights situation and hasten political and social change. Critics maintain the Games would reward a repressive Communist regime and lead to further rights abuses.

The first school of thought appears to be winning out.

"More and more members I talk to understand that it could be the most important postwar contribution of the Olympic movement to the development of the world political system," said John MacAloon, a University of Chicago professor and Olympic historian.

In 1993, four years after the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, Beijing lost the 2000 Olympics to Sydney by two votes.

After sitting out the contest for the 2004 Games, which were awarded to Athens, Beijing came back this time with what China describes as a new and improved bid.

But the human rights issue has not gone away, with critics citing, among other things, the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, the arrest of Chinese-American scholars, repression in Tibet and mass executions of prisoners.

Opponents say awarding the games to China would be similar to when the 1936 Games were given to Munich in Nazi Germany.

IOC members have been bombarded by hundreds of e-mails and faxes from human rights activists, mainly associated with Tibet, which China occupied in 1950.

Jean-Claude Killy, the former great Olympic skier from France who is an IOC member and backer of the Paris bid, believes the anti-Beijing e-mail campaign could make a difference.

"We are getting so much material every day from opposition groups," he said. "At some point, some IOC members are going to say, 'Jesus, this is a problem, and I should look at it with a different point of view.' "

The IOC also has received two letters from a purported radical pro-Tibetan faction vowing "serious bodily reprisals" if Beijing gets the games. The letters were turned over to Swiss police.

Paris bid leaders have not hesitated in pointing out China's human rights record.

"The question of ethics is fundamental," bid chief Claude Bebear said in a rare public attack on a rival candidate. "If you read the Olympic charter closely, you'll find on nearly every line a reference to human rights."

But Beijing insists politics should stay out of the Olympics, and the city got a boost when the Bush administration decided not to oppose the bid.

The collision between a U.S. Navy spy plane and Chinese fighter jet and China's 11-day detention of the American crew appear to have had little effect on the Beijing bid.

Other factors also work in favor of China, home of one-fourth of the world's population:

• Sentiment is on Beijing's side, with many members believing China deserves the games after its narrow defeat in 1993.

• IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who is stepping down July 16 after 21 years in office, is widely believed to want the games in China.

• The IOC's multinational sponsors are eager to tap into the Chinese market.

• With the 2004 Games in Greece, IOC members might be reluctant to give the Olympics to another European city. Several European countries including Britain, Spain and Germany are planning bids for 2012, so some European members will want the 2008 games in Asia.

What's more, Paris and Toronto have made major PR gaffes in recent weeks.

Bebear, the Paris bid chief, is being investigated in a money-laundering scheme for his role as chief executive of French insurance group Axa.

Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman was forced to apologize after joking that he was reluctant to attend an Olympic meeting in Africa because "I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me."

Nonetheless, Paris and Toronto have attractive bids.

Paris would offer its famous monuments and landmarks as a backdrop for the games beach volleyball at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the marathon course past the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, show jumping in front of the Invalides, fencing at the Grand Palais.

"The Paris proposal is a no-problem proposition," Killy said. "I'm very confident of winning. Six months ago, I would say this is almost impossible. Today I believe it is possible."

Toronto bills itself as the bid of and for the athletes. Competition in 25 of 28 sports would be held within about 3? miles of a renovated waterfront complex.

"We feel good about our chances," Toronto bid official Bob Richardson said. "We are feeling fairly bullish about things. We believe we are the bid of certainty, a risk-free bid."

Paris and Toronto cling to the hope that the pattern of recent Olympic elections will be repeated in Moscow.

"History tells you a lot," Richardson said. "Five out the six most recent front-runners have not been the winner coming out."

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