Comment: First Night, 2006 Winter Olympics Bid - Soul-cleansing time in Seoul

The Olympics need cheers after the Salt Lake tears. Alan Hubbard reports
Click to follow
AN ALTERNATIVE engagement - actually it is more of a wedding - prevents Princ-ess Anne from doing jury service next weekend when the Olympic movement goes on trial. HRH, as president of the British Olympic Association and a member of the International Olympic Committee, was due in Seoul where, on Saturday, the world will learn which of six European candidates get to host the 2006 Winter Games.

Being considered not only neutral but incorruptible, and an implacable opponent of the greed that has seen the Olympic ideal plummeting to rock- bottom credibility, the Princess would have been a perfect choice to serve on the secret selection panel which will decide whether venues in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Finland, Slovakia or Poland are given the questionable privilege of picking up the poisoned chalice currently residing in the sleaze-infested waters of Utah's Salt Lake.

However, as her younger brother's nuptials beckon, the Princess Royal will be unable to put in her terse twopenneth. Instead it is likely that her usual travelling companion, fellow IOC member Craig Reedie, the BOA chairman, will instead be drafted to sit on the 15-person panel.

The IOC know that what happens in the South Korean capital must be beyond reproach. Seoul brings the opportunity for the Olympics to cleanse its own soul. The stench of the Salt Lake City scandal - which caused six on-the-take IOC members to be axed, four to resign and nine others to be formally censured (roughly one-fifth of its contingent) lingers and the future of the whole Games concept remains in jeopardy.

Consequently, the Seoul scenario will be much different from the freebie- for-all bun fights that have besmirched the bidding process in the past. Interim rules have been introduced while the fundamentals of how the Games are awarded are examined by a commission including luminaries ranging from Henry Kissinger to Sebastian Coe.

Access to the IOC headquarters at Seoul's Shiller Hotel will be banned to those lobbying on behalf of Sion (Switzerland), Klagenfurt (Austria), Turin (Italy), Helsinki (Finland), Proprad-Tatry (Slovakia) and Zakopane (Poland) until Friday morning when the rival venues will be allowed to make an hour-long presentation apiece to the full IOC. Subsequently, the jury of 15 will be selected and empowered to examine the bids and whittle the contestants down to two. They will comprise eight IOC members, a representative each of the National Olympic Committees and Winter Sports Federations, three athletes, the Japanese chairman of the Evaluation Commission, which has prepared a detailed 288-page report on all cities and, curiously one Joao Havelange, the octegenerian former Fifa president who is the "doyen" of the IOC (what, one wonders does the old boy from Brazil know about slaloms and stem christies?).

This electoral college will be chaired by the IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who does not vote - though one suspects his wink is as good as a nod. Then follows an immediate secret ballot between the two nominated front-runners by the full IOC, at present numbering 98, though this is likely to be reduced by one should Phil Coles, of Australia, be expelled, as expected, after investigations into his own irregularities.

First past the post wins - and the current reckoning is that it is a two- horse sleigh race between the favourites, Sion, and the enterprising outsiders Klagenfurt.

Says Britain's Reedie, who has expressed his willingness to sit on the jury if asked: "It is really important that this new selection process is seen to be transparently fair, open and done properly. After the horrors of Salt Lake, there's no way the IOC can go back to the so-called good old days of having members trailing around the bidding cities - though I suspect some of my colleagues might like to. We in Britain have certainly made it clear there is no question of us bidding for a summer Games until we are satisfied that the process is honest and above suspicion."

As it happens the Salt Lake shenanigans do not seem to have given potential candidate cities cold feet for either summer or winter Games. Ten have already thrown their hats into the Olympic rings for the summer Games of 2008.

But at the moment the $350m question (that's what the Games are worth to the winners) is who will be celebrating in Seoul. It looks like shoo- in for Sion. The Swiss candidate has the best technical facilities, but more important is close to the heart of the Olympic movement in every sense, being a snowball's throw away from Lausanne, the IOC HQ.

And the country so steeped in winter sports is overdue a Games - they were last held there in 1948. The bids from Slovakia and Poland can more or less be discounted while Finland's, which would also utilise the alpine facilities of Lillehammer in Norway, could be tainted by the fact that one of their IOC representatives was swept up - and out - in the corruption exposures.

Turin, favoured, I believe, alongside Sion by the British, is better known for Fiat and football than the snowy stuff, though Sestriere, a world championship skiing venue, is close by. But it is the bid from Klagenfurt which may well tickle the fancy of some of the more progressive IOC members. The Austrians have linked with two bordering nations, Italy and Slovenia, to present what they believe is the way ahead for the Olympics. They call it a bid beyond borders. In effect it is a sort of Jeux Sans Frontiers on snow.

Although Klagenfurt, a lovely lakeside resort, would officially be the host city, events would be held in northern Italy and a slice of Slovenia. The women's downhill, for instance, would start in Slovenia, traverse Italy and finish in Austria at a point called Dreilandereck, a mile-high cosmopolitan corner of Europe which sees the convergence of three nations.

Here is real Von Trapp country and the hills would be alive to the sound of cash registers in three currencies. Overall, the Austrian idea is not only deeply impressive but refreshingly novel. It is headed by 57-year- old Dr Dieter Kalt, a provincial governor and veteran of seven Olympics as an ice hockey player and manager. It is, he says, the idea of the future, something which could enhance European unity. "Here you have three countries which in the past have been at war. Now we are all working together for peace. If you can eliminate borders on the land, you can eliminate them in the mind."

The joint candidature would also see ice skating in Klagenfurt, ice hockey in Ljubljana and bobsleigh in Cortina d'Ampezzo. A fascinating if logistically fraught game plan which has the endorsement of one of the great heroes of winter sports, Franz Klammer. "I was personally shocked and saddened by the scandal which almost buried the Olympic movement," says Klammer, 46, Austrian hero of the 1976 Games. "It was a violation of all we treasured about the Olympics. Now they have the opportunity to clean up the mess.

"Although we may not be favourites we have a good chance because we are different, and we are definitely clean. I will stake my reputation on that. Everything goes by the book and that book is open to public scrutiny. Here we have no corruption. We have a clean vest."

No one has taken the Austrian schilling because none has been offered. But they remain sceptical that all might not be as pure as the driven snow in Seoul. "I feel that everything has been prepared for Sion to win," says Dr Kalt. "I can see it in the way the evaluation report has been written. It could even be a farewell gift from President Samaranch to the Swiss for their hospitality over the years." But instead of a Swiss swizzle, might there be a backlash? It was the veteran Swiss IOC member Marc Holder who first prised open the can of worms about Salt Lake. Many of his bung-ho contemporaries will never forgive him.

We await the Seoul show trial with interest. A pity the paragon princess can't be on hand to ensure that, whatever the verdict, Olympic victory does not come gift-wrapped.