Five cities, five rings, one vital verdict

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One of sport's most chillingly quaint rituals takes place in Switzerland this week when the International Olympic Committee nominate the host city for the Olympic Games of 2004. It is not a decision they take lightly and they make damn sure that no one else takes it lightly either, particularly the five cities upon whom the pressures of candidature have been gradually intensifying in the 12 months since they were short- listed and which reach a suspenseful climax on Friday at the Beaulieu Palace in Lausanne.

It could hardly be anything else but nerve-wracking, considering the potency of the prize. The responsibility of staging the Games has meant many things to many cities; terrorism, political boycotts, drug scandals, chaos and penury among them. But there has been glory, too, and honour and pride aplenty. Olympic Roulette has become the world's most unpredictable sport.

Yet there is never a shortage of places willing, anxious even, to take their chances with the genie of the five rings despite the hazard of guessing what mood he'll be in next time. Actually, next time is already spoken for. Sydney is to stage the Games of 2000, it being the policy of the IOC to nominate their hosts seven years in advance so that they have plenty of time to prepare.

The campaign teams of the five cities ready to risk the anguish in return for the Olympic presence in 2004 - Rome, Athens, Stockholm, Cape Town and Buenos Aires - will already be installed in Lausanne, headquarters of the IOC and scene of their 106th Session which begins today. Most of the 109 voting members of the Committee - the head man Juan Samaranch doesn't vote - will have visited all five candidates during the past year and will, over the next five days, be subject to a final blast of intense lobbying.

During the week, the lobbying squads will be reinforced by a brigade of political heavies from their respective countries and none of those is more capable of tilting the balance than Nelson Mandela. The South African president has made Cape Town's bid into a personal crusade and he packs a powerfully persuasive punch in his appeal for the Olympic flame to illuminate Africa for the first time in its history.

Much criticised for many facets of their overblown nature, the Olympic Games nevertheless possess the power to make a positive contribution to a nation's well-being and answering Mandela's call for the event to become the focus of South Africa's regeneration over the next decade may offer an historical role too attractive for the IOC to resist.

Given the country's problems, however, and the fact that Mandela will not be in power in 2004, even that altruistic prospect may be seen to carry too many dangers. It is a feature of this week's contest that snags can be found in each of the candidate's cases and such is the fierce rivalry between them that you can be sure that every doubt is being enlarged and circulated.

The result is a race that is very difficult to forecast. The bookmakers have already given up on it. Both Ladbrokes and William Hill have slammed the book shut. Both had Rome as odds-on favourites. Hill had Cape Town at 11-8 and Athens at 7-2 while Ladbrokes priced them at 5-2 and 11-4. Ladbrokes put Buenos Aires at 16-1; Hill were prepared to offer 80-1. Not any more. After taking some smart money on Cape Town, they both decided it wasn't an easy result even for them to call.

Sources within the IOC estimate that a third of the members are still dithering over the recipient of their vote, so this was not an unreasonable step to take. Few are prepared to make a confident prediction about the outcome. I make it a rule never to bet on anything that doesn't move but if I was to find anyone prepared to take a small wager I would place it on Athens. This, I must admit, is based more on wish than wisdom. Athens is owed one by the IOC. I shared the anguish when its claims to have the right of staging the centenary Games in 1996 - the Greek capital is the undisputed home of the Olympics, both ancient and modern - were overlooked in favour of Atlanta. It was a decision of which the IOC should forever be ashamed and the resulting disaster of organisation was hardly punishment enough.

The reason Rome have been promoted to favourites is partly related to their promise to transform the Via Veneto into a private playground for IOC officials and their wives during the duration of the Games but mainly to the leader of their bid, Primo Nebiolo, the powerful head of the International Amateur Athletics Federation who run the World Championships. Nebiolo is said to be calling in every favour he can lay hands on but even in this jungle of doubtful decisions he may have overstepped the mark in denouncing the Athens bid despite the good job they made of staging his championships earlier this month.

Nebiolo insisted on running the event at the beginning of August, despite being warned that Athenians took to the beaches at that time. Then he criticised the low attendances. Athens would hold the Olympics in the back half of August when the people are around and the temperature drops significantly. At the end of the championships, Nebiolo refused the handshake offered by the leader of the Athens bid, the charmingly persuasive Gianna Angelopoulos and the only woman involved in this week's battle for votes. This is just one of the intriguing cameos behind sport's most vital vote which will remain locked in suspense until 6.28pm, local time, on Friday when Juan Samaranch will be handed the envelope containing the name of the next but one city to bear the Olympic burden.

Congratulations to Wendy Toms who on Wednesday night became the first woman to run the line in a Premiership fixture when she officiated in the Southampton-Crystal Palace match at The Dell. May she be the first of many. It's my firm belief that women will one day earn their place on the pitch, too, but let's not get carried away.

Now that Wendy has made the breakthrough, we will soon become accustomed to women linesmen, or referee's assistants as we are presciently calling them these days. As a newcomer to the Premiership, of course, Wendy has to get used to the beeper on the flag by which the linespeople can communicate with the referee. But I suspect the Football Association will in future have to adjust its signalling system to something like: one beep for offside, two for hand-ball, three for foul play and four beeps for "I love you".

Delight that Mike Atherton has decided to soldier on as captain of England is slightly diluted by my sympathy for all those cricket commentators and correspondents who confidently predicted he would make precisely the opposite decision. I am not suggesting Atherton delayed the news deliberately to send them haring off in the wrong direction but I can't think of a better way for a man to get his own back on his tormentors. It was not only a courageous decision in view of the winter ahead but it was the right one for English cricket.

Next spring I trust that we will look back on Atherton's past week and say that nothing became him more than the manner of his staying.