Athens and Rome fight urban war

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Most Olympic Games stand or fall on the quality of the event itself. But the 2004 Games might just go down in history for the singular ferocity with which the two leading candidates, Athens and Rome, have fought their battle for the right to stage the greatest sporting occasion on Earth.

As the International Olympic Committee pondered its decision in Lausanne last night, the two great capitals of antiquity were spending every last drop of energy trying to persuade the 107 IOC delegates that the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome were both very much alive.

In its final presentation, the Rome organising committee chose the voice and bulky frame of Luciano Pavarotti to have the last word. "In my concerts, I always sing O Sole Mio, which is the symbol of Rome," the tenor announced proudly in the presentation video, ignoring the fact that O Sole Mio is in fact a Neapolitan song. "I tell you: O Sole Mio, Rome, 2004."

Athens, meanwhile, relied on the charismatic chairwoman of its organisation committee, Gianna Angelopoulos, to put the city's case. Among her many promises was a pledge to pay the air fares of every one of the 16,000 participating athletes and organisers.

Such last-minute flourishes gave only a taste of the sparring that has characterised the past few weeks. Athens's star has been in the ascendant ever since a successful World Athletics Championships took place there in early August; in reaction, the most prominent Italian in world sport, the international athletics federation chief Primo Nebiolo, has been doing his best to bash the Greek capital in a flurry of public statements.

The Athens event would have been a "Greek tragedy", he said, if it had not been for the guiding of his organisation, the IAAF. He even said the Greeks were constitutionally incapable of organising an event of such magnitude.

A furious Greek press reacted by printing allegations of corruption and improper conduct against Mr Nebiolo. They also asked awkward questions about the University Games, held in Sicily at the end of August, whose organisation was so shambolic that participants were forced to share beds. If the Sicilians were so chaotic, what guarantees were there that the Romans would be any better?

Mr Nebiolo had an answer for this too. "So what if athletes have to share a bed?" he said. "They can put a pillow between them."

Mr Nebiolo's remarks have been so incendiary that many many believe he has been deliberately setting out to sabotage the Rome bid, possibly because he believes he can exercise greater influence and extract greater prestige from an event staged far away from his home turf.

In reality, both the Rome and the Athens bids are fraught with problems. Neither has an ideal climate in mid-summer, both suffer from excess traffic pollution, poor accommodation facilities and indifferent telecommunications.

Opponents of the Rome bid have challenged the "facts" set out in the official brochures, asked awkward questions about the extensive proposed building programme and expressed fears of grand-scale corruption if the bid is successful.

Athens's bid is less controversial, because it relies largely on existing facilities and will take place predominantly away from the city in a triangle made up by a new city airport, a new Olympic village and the existing Olympic stadium. But Athenians have wondered just how much good can come from an event that will bring little infrastructural benefit (the new airport, a motorway link to the centre, and a new city underground network are all under way already), and is likely to eat into the country's fragile public finances.

"What Athens needs is not the Olympics," said one Greek government official, speaking strictly privately. "What Athens needs is an earthquake."

The contest between the two southern European candidates has nevertheless caught the imagination in ways that the other candidates - Stockholm, Cape Town and Buenos Aires - have not. Earlier this week, Stockholm and Cape Town were publicly accused of trying to bribe IOC officials. Cape Town has been touted as a possible compromise choice, but its greatest attraction - Nelson Mandela - is also its greatest drawback since it is not clear if the president will still be around in 2004.

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