How lobbyists seek friends and influence

Since the Salt Lake scandal, prospective host cities have to tread carefully. Mike Rowbottom looks at the dos and don'ts

In 2001 the mayor of Toronto, Mel Lastman, spoke at a press conference before travelling to seek the support of African delegates for his city's pursuit of the 2008 Olympics. "What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa for?" he asked. "I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me." After adding that his wife was afraid of snakes, the mayor felt it only right to point out that his earlier comments had been meant as a joke.

As one veteran observer of IOC affairs put it, Lastman's joke killed off the African vote for Toronto "in one fell swoop". The 2008 Games will now be in China rather than Canada.

But if it is obvious what you should not do if you want to court the favour of the self-elected club that is the IOC - whose 115 voting members will conduct a secret ballot in Singapore on Wednesday to bestow the 2012 Olympics - the question of what you should do is a little more taxing. When the members gathered in Monaco 12 years ago to determine the venue for the 2000 Olympics, John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, had no doubts about what was required upon hearing that Sydney's well-favoured bid was losing ground to its Chinese rival among some key African members.

On the night before the vote, Coates used a formal dinner at the Hotel de Paris to offer delegates from Kenya and Uganda $50,000 [£28,400] each for their National Olympic Committees. He also managed to find a place for the daughter of Swaziland's IOC member at Sydney's International Catering Institute. And "just to make sure there was no misunderstanding", he rang them again the next morning.

Within a few hours, the Australians had won the Games by one vote. The surprise of the then IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, was evident as he opened the envelope containing the final result and announced that the 2000 Olympics would go to "Bei... Sydney". Six years later, in the wake of the IOC investigation into corrupt practices by the committee that won Salt Lake City the 2002 Winter Games, Coates was forced to reveal his last-minute manouevring in full detail. His final explanation was frank. "Well, we didn't win it on the beauty of the city and the sporting facilities we had to offer on their own, and we were never going to."

The question which has faced the rival bidders of London, Paris, Madrid, Moscow and New York in the long preparation for tomorrow's climactic vote is: to what extent has Coates' analysis remained relevant? The Salt Lake investigators expelled six IOC members - three more resigned - and banned individual visits to prospective bidding cities, establishing an evaluation committee to perform appraisals on members' behalf.

The replacement of the compromised president, Samaranch, with Belgium's squeaky-clean former yachtsman Jacques Rogge, also indicated the IOC's intention of becoming more ethical and transparent.

But how much has really changed? Andrew Craig, a member of the team that secured the 2010 Winter Games for Vancouver and now responsible for shaping London 2012's lobbying strategy, believes that the landscape has altered.

"Since the Salt Lake scandal, the IOC have established very clear guidelines for this process," Craig said. "You can no longer see people on an individual basis. You have to contact members at an IOC-approved event, such as a sports competition. It doesn't make it easy for us, but we respect the rules."

Judging exactly what is acceptable within the new climate is now a sensitive issue, as London's team discovered in April when it had to withdraw a £15m package of incentives to athletes and sports federations, including free flights and subsidised training camps.

While the French judge who heads the IOC ethics commission was happy that the measures were within the rules, Rogge, put on the back foot by a press enquiry, reacted with uncharacteristic vehemence, insisting that London's initiative ran the risk of turning the 2012 contest into a "bidding war". Lord Coe, chairman of the London bid, swiftly withdrew. Since then, however, the process of seeking an edge over rivals has not grown any easier.

"You hear a lot about influential groups of voters, but these days that's a thing of the past," Craig said. "There are tendencies. But I would say the idea of there being a few strongmen who can leverage large blocs of votes is a thing of the past. I don't believe, for instance, that there is such a thing as 'the Muslim vote'. We are talking about 115 individuals from a variety of different backgrounds. You have to recognise that, and treat every one accordingly.

"Some may be extremely interested in specific sports, others may be concerned about athletes' welfare. Others may want to see bidding cities offering a sporting legacy. The most important thing, when you get to see someone, is actually listening. You need to make sure you tailor your discussions to them.

"But nobody can win this bid based on core support. Unlike elections in the UK, there are multiple rounds of voting. You win because you pick up other votes from other cities as they drop out. So at some level, every IOC member - and we have met every one several times - needs to support your bid.

"The clearest example occurred when Atlanta got the 1996 Games. Sixty per cent of their voters in the last round had not voted for them in the first round. You can drive yourself crazy by trying to speculate on every possibility. Nobody knows precisely what will happen."

But what, generally, will happen in Singapore is that lobbyists from all five bids will be desperately - using Lord Coe's phrase - "reinforcing and reinvigorating relationships" with IOC members. Most of the work has now been done, for good or ill, and Craig is hoping that his efforts in bringing together Lord Coe, the bid's chief executive Keith Mills or himself with IOC members at a long succession of international events will have paid off.

"You aim to talk in depth with people, and that can happen in hotel lobbies, or breakfast rooms, or other public areas, or when you are sitting near to them at sports events and conferences," Craig said. "Sometimes you can find yourself sitting around for hours. But you never want to harass people. The painful lobbyist is someone who is always in the face of the person they are trying to speak to."

Rod McGeoch, strategist for the 2000 Sydney bid, has since written his own unofficial guidelines for the successful lobbyist. One of them is the unspoken obligation never to leave a bar while there is still an IOC member in it, a stricture that was spectacularly unobserved by Lord Coe's predecessor as bid chairman, Barbara Cassani.

McGeoch also commented unfavourably on the tactics employed by Bob Scott, leader of Manchester's bids for the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, criticising his habit of inviting himself to sit alongside IOC members as they were eating. Scott once jocularly remarked, when there were 90 voting IOC members, that he had been expecting 360 votes because he had been promised four times by each of them.

"IOC members don't like to disappoint," Craig said. "They don't find it easy to look into your eyes and say: 'Your bid is terrible. I'm not going to vote for you.' The IOC is a very polite organisation, but politeness should not be confused with support."

The soundness of Craig's calculations will be weighed in the balance tomorrow. But that veteran Olympic observer, who has been involved in several bids over the past decade, remains to be convinced the process has become a radically different one.

"I don't think it's changed as much as people say it has," he observed. "It comes down to politics, and probably some money. A mixture of both."

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