Home truth for Olympic ideal

IOC are knocked off their feet by a woman of substance as the wrong inflicted on Athens is purged
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The Independent Online
The Olympic Games are going home at last and it is difficult to think of a good reason why they should not stay there forever. This may seem an odd thought to be expressed in the aftermath of the world celebrations that greeted the International Olympic Committee's overwhelming vote in favour of Athens as the host city of the 2004 Games but few who witnessed the process of their selection in Lausanne over the past few days would have avoided an uneasy feeling.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the outcome: indeed, it was being hailed as one of the fairest ever made by the IOC, an organisation who, despite having their headquarters in Switzerland, have not often been credited with having much in common with the driven snow.

Athens, birthplace of the ancient and the modern Olympics, was the right and proper recipient of a handsome winning margin of 66-41 over Rome in the final round of voting in the Palais de Beaulieu. For the Greek capital, it was a result that ended the lingering pain of the inequity inflicted seven years ago when the IOC ignored their rightful claims and awarded Atlanta the honour of staging the Centennial Olympics in 1996. It was a lousy choice when it was first made and by the time Atlanta had made enough cock-ups to construct a monument it was a strong contender as the worst sporting decision of our time.

A more sensitive organisation might have chosen that as a reason for considering alternative arrangements that would avoid the danger of placing their precious event into clumsy hands. A permanent Olympic site would bring many advantages and give the IOC a more constructive, if less luxurious, role than being purveyors of a rich prize they have to be persuaded at great cost to part with every four years.

By purging the wrong they did Athens the IOC seem to feel that an even keel has been restored but the entire procedure is still heavily flawed. It is paying too generous a compliment to regard their decision as a result of a collective conscience severely pricked. However happy they were to do it, they elected Athens because the Grecian onslaught of sound reasoning in support of their campaign was made all the more difficult to resist because it was delivered almost single handily by not only the first woman ever to attempt to win over the IOC but the first to knock them clean off their feet.

At 41, a lawyer, politician and mother of three, Gianna Angelopoulos has much in common with those high-profile ladies Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair but when it comes to the art of persuasion the raven-haired powerhouse is in a class of her own. In Friday's final presentations by the five candidate cities, she routed some redoubtable opponents in what came down to a contest of compelling oratory. Among them Nelson Mandela, President Menem of Argentina and Luciano Pavarotti.

Even while up to the eye-balls in ouzo with celebrating Greek friends on Friday night, it was impossible to overlook the unappealing side of the drama we observed during that long day. The sorriest sight was Mandela's sad departure from the scene of what must rank as a bitter defeat in his bid to use the Olympics to fuel a brighter and more stable future for Cape Town.

The others - Rome, Stockholm and Buenos Aires - may be better placed to suffer failure but their despondency appeared even more acute than the glee of the Athens contingent.

If nothing else sport teaches us that there must be losers but we are not talking about the Eurovision Song Contest here. The defeat of an Olympic bid at the final stage carries a savage financial penalty and represents untold expenditure of energy and emotion. The unavoidable impression one gets from attending this event is of the enormous waste involved.

The winning city receives an almost immediate prize of $1 billion in advanced TV and marketing earnings and can usually treble that by the end of their involvement. Added to that can be immeasurable gains and, in conjunction with a renewal plan like that already under way in Athens, can establish a city's entire future.

The cost of losing is harder to estimate because they don't like to admit it even to themselves. When Birmingham's bid failed in the mid-80s it cost them pounds 2.1 million. You can multiply that figure by five now and add to it the cost in wasted effort and lost imputus.

Mandela had staked a lot on Cape Town's success and saw in it a far wider significance. "You helped us defeat apartheid," he told the IOC. "Now we want you to sponsor the rebirth of a continent." Some of the IOC are blessed with enough self- importance to regard themselves capable of anything but even they baulked at that task. Perhaps it is a mistake to regard the Olympics as something to be hired but I found it distressing. What is Nelson Mandela doing prostrating himself in front of this lot who no one elected and who are accountable to no one?

"You are the dream makers," exclaimed Gianna Angelopoulos and she harangued the IOC with reasons why Athens deserved their support. It was a statement probably designed to make them preen - much of that has to be done I am afraid - but it is true and maybe they should consider closing down the factory. One dream coming true every four years is a poor record to set against the more regular production of false hopes, potentially destructive ones at that.

The Olympic Games have the power to make cities great, to regenerate the run-down and even add the sign of respectability to the heavily tarnished. In this last respect they have been the apple of the despot's eye. And as long as the present system of selection exists they can never be safe from such clutches.

The choice of Athens gives hope that a more enlightened IOC is emerging - over 20 new members voted for the first time in Lausanne - and at least the political wheeling and dealing traditional to this event was kept to a minimum. Incredibly, one of the Greek IOC members said it was the only fair election he had experienced in his 22 years with them. And not the least pleasurable result of the vote was that it represented a massive personal defeat for Primo Nebiolo, chairman of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, whose presence as chairman of the Rome bid gave rise to many rumours of backhanded arrangements and placed the Italian city as clear favourites. Nebiolo, who scandalously rubbished the Athens bid when he was there for the World Athletics Championships last month, has fewer friends than he thinks.

The Rome bid was, like that of Stockholm, subject to discontent from those at home who doubted its wisdom - as I suspect there would be if anyone was misguided enough to submit a claim on behalf of London - and considerable doubt was thrown on some of the claims made in the Rome campaign by a member of the Italian Senate, Jas Gawronski. He accused the Romans of supplying the IOC with several misleading statistics, including that the centre of Rome could be reached by car from Fiumicino Airport in 23 minutes. "Perhaps Michael Schumacher would be able to accomplish such a feat," he said, "but only at night and with no traffic."

This expensive and dangerous charade would end if they were to settle in one place and replace their roots from where they were torn. Ancient Olympia is three hours drive from Athens and an appropriate place for a purpose-built site with every facility for athletes, spectators and visitors. It already houses an international Olympic academy and could become the living centre of the sporting world, enabling the IOC to play a much larger and more practical role in encouraging sports participation generally, and particularly among the youth.

Now that their Games are coming back to them the Greeks are determined to revive the true spirit of the old Olympiad. It will be to their everlasting credit if they can inject that spirit into the organisation pledged to preserve it.