Spring is imminent, and the green shoots of interest in London's Olympic bid are really beginning to show. As the two-year race to host the 2012 Games enters its final stage, editors are beginning to wonder whether London has a serious chance of winning, or whether Paris really is a shoo-in.
It's a tough one to assess because the voters' opinions and intentions remain obscure. The challenge facing the journalists covering the bid beat over the months leading up to the 6 July vote in Singapore is to get into the minds of that electorate. This is no easy task, considering that the 118 voting members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are spread across the world. To complicate matters further the IOC, an elite members' club of minor royalty, career politicians and former sporting greats, uses a secret-ballot system - and it is said that any members who declare their voting intentions are lying.
All this uncertainty means that those few journalists in the world who really know the IOC suddenly find themselves amid the toughest and potentially dirtiest bid in recent memory. And they are in great demand. These are the reporters, mostly from the international news wires, who have followed the often arcane deliberations of the IOC executive at meetings around the world.
Among those Olympic specialists, none is better travelled than Ed Hula, who reckons he clocks up 100,000 air-miles a year compiling reports for Around the Rings (ATR), a website dedicated to covering the minutiae of the Olympic movement. Hula has certainly jumped through a few hoops in pursuit of the story, and the booming voice of this former radio sports reporter is a feature of IOC press conferences.
ATR was launched by Hula after the Atlanta Games in 1996 when, as a radio reporter covering the Olympic beat, he found he had more material than he could broadcast. His wife Sheila, whom he met in the CNN newsroom in its early days, handles the business side, and they have a staff of five in their Atlanta office. A newsletter was initially sent out by fax, but costs soared. ATR now has 1,500 subscribers to its e-mail, among them some of the most influential IOC members.
Other journalists on the beat say Hula is less attuned than they are to the politics of the IOC, because he sweats over official reports while his rivals work the hotel lobbies and bars where the deals are done. Nevertheless, he is known affectionately at the IOC as the 16th member of the executive board.
Hula claims to have predicted the last seven host cities, and he is always being asked about the state of play in the 2012 bid. As he tucked into his fish and chips at The Ivy restaurant in London a couple of weeks ago, you can be assured that his hosts from London 2012 would devour his words with equal enthusiasm.
ATR is about to launch a Chinese edition to capitalise on the Beijing Games in 2008, and talks are continuing to sell the site to a corporate investor as Hula, 53, wearies of all the globetrotting. Part of ATR's sales pitch will have been to highlight the advertising it attracts from global brands associated with the Olympics.
So who does Hula really think will win the 2012 bid? "I think it is very close, because there are a lot of dynamic cities involved,'' he said. "We are in a transitional stage because of the IOC inspection visits [to the bidding cities]. Once they are over, we may have to reshuffle the order. But if I had to vote today, I would probably go with Paris because there are fewer elements of risk.''
For the bidding cities, their coverage on the internet and in the international media has suddenly become a much greater priority. Under IOC rules intended to eradicate bribery and corruption, all-expenses-paid trips to bidding cities are banned. So putting up the likes of the London bid leader Lord Coe for newspaper, television and radio interviews in crucial regions is one of the most effective ways of getting the message across.
The role of the media in the UK was essential before Christmas in drumming up support at a time when the IOC was conducting its secret poll of public opinion. Bid officials, and at least one cabinet minister, urged editors to discover their patriotic side during the IOC inspection of London earlier this month.
But from now until the final vote you are more likely to find Lord Coe popping up in the press from Melbourne to Mombasa, extolling the virtues of London's transport system. Mike Lee, the director of communications at the bid company London 2012, says: "International media becomes even more important in the final months of the campaign."