It was a brief encounter but a compelling moment in Olympic history when Gianna Angelopoulos, the glamorous Greek who was the first woman to bid for, and win, a summer Games, met London's new leading lady. "Hi," said the high-flyer from Barnes via Boston, "I'm Barbara Cassani."
Angelopoulos, smoking a cigar, clad in a head-turning white trouser suit and perched on a marble ledge overlooking the buzzing lobby of Prague's Hilton Hotel, extended an expensively manicured hand. "Congratulations," she smiled. "It is a very brave thing you have taken on. You will need a lot of courage and determination. It is a very human process."
The impromptu introduction was, one would like to believe, the beginning of a dialogue between the divas that could well underpin London's prospects of securing the 2012 Games. But it is one that cannot be rushed.
For, as Angelopoulos, resting a leg injured in a recent swimming-pool accident, was at pains to point out later, she is bound by the constraints of Olympic protocol not to favour any bidding city until the Athens Games are over in 14 months' time. "After that," she says, "I'm a free agent. I can do what I like."
One suspects she is looking forward to that day in September 2004 when perhaps London will be able to call profitably and legitimately on her knowledge, contacts and experience. Meanwhile, she advises Cassani to keep the punches up. "Be noble, be generous to your competitors and above all play the game honourably. I am very proud that in winning the bid for Athens we never did anything, how do you say, 'under the belly'."
Not that Cassani would dream of hitting low or conducting herself too high and mightily. But Angelopoulos clearly impresses her. "What an amazing person. Everyone I've ever spoken to about her says: 'Wow!' But I'm not her. I need to do this job in a way that reflects my own personality. One person is great, but a team is better. That's how we will go forward."
Cassani and Angelopoulos are two of a kind in one respect - both are multi-millionairesses, though the £9m Cassani made by selling the low-cost airline Go to easyJet is small change to the richest woman in Greece. But other similarities evaporate when they are alongside each other. The raven-haired Angelopoulos power-dresses like a dynamo from Dynasty. The slightly-built Cassani, in her smart but conservative fawn two-piece, may have Angelopoulos's drive but she lacks her presence - and her wardrobe.
And while Angelopoulos is on first- name terms with practically all of the 126 members of the International Olympic Committee, Casssani has yet to put all those names to faces, though in two valuable flesh-pressing days at the Prague session she managed to say "Hi" to almost half of them.
Angelopoulos, who was there to give a cautiously upbeat update on Athens 2004 which clearly met with Jacques Rogge's wholehearted approval, flew in by private jet. Cassani says she would have come by easyJet - it was just that Heathrow and BA are closer to her home. Even so, her economy ticket raised eyebrows among her new first-class mates at the IOC, who are unused to such frugality. But, she insists, that's how it will be until she raises some money from the City and determines her own budget. "When you accept public money you have a special responsibility to husband it," she said. "It is important that the taxpayers know we are not taking them for a ride."
Before they parted, Cassani invited her Greek counterpart for a more personalised pow-wow in London. Angelopoulos has accepted, providing she can fit it in to her hectic schedule. This might be the opportunity for a womanly conflab on how to deal with difficult prime ministers. Angelopoulos did so by banging her fists on the desk of hers on several occasions.
So, is Cassani prepared to do a bit of table-banging in Downing Street? "I'm prepared to do whatever it takes, though I'd prefer to work by persuasion, as I'm sure she [Angelopoulos] does. But if it takes banging on tables, that's what I'll do. You betcha!"
The phrase may not be in Mrs Angelopoulos's multilingual vocabulary, but she'll get the drift. So will the IOC. After that 2012 victory for Vancouver, London's bid is now on a "Hi".Reuse content