French masters at whetting appetites
Sports Diarist of the Year Alan Hubbard reports from Paris on the tempting of IOC palates
Sunday 13 March 2005
Paris have been pushing le bateau out all week, and not just along the Seine. A ceaseless tide of champagne, foie gras and copious other gastronomic delights has flowed throughout the visit of the IOC Evaluation Commission. And that is just for the media. Evidently they have set out to win our hearts and minds through our stomachs.
The IOC inspectors had to be content with a single banquet at the Elysée Palace on Friday night, where President Jacques Chirac kissed the hand of the commission chairman Nawal El Moutawakel and guided her party to tables groaning with crayfish, stuffed pigeon and chocolate mousse, washed down with Chateau d'Yquem 1990, an amusing little wine, which, if you dusted off a bottle from the shelves of Oddbins, would not leave much change out of a couple of hundred quid. Paris, it seems, have spent as much on grub and grog these past few days as London's entire visit outlay of £680,000.
Inevitably, too, there was foie gras a plenty at the sumptuous soirée, this time served with Sauternes jelly. This, we were informed by the ultra-efficient Paris media machine, is the president's favourite dish "He is partial to a slice or two before bed."
We do not know whether Chirac slept easily after the feast because, as in London, New York and Madrid, Nawal and company are the souls of discretion. They receive no gifts, neither do they give anything away. Last night Morocco's beguiling former Olympic hurdles champion delivered the customary pat on the back at the commission's only press briefing amid the ornate elegance of Paris's Grand Hotel ballroom, being as complimentary to the Paris bid as she had been London's. She spoke of the high calibre and professionalism of the presentations, the excellence of preparations and the passion of the public and political support, not least from President Chirac, "a great sportsman who is fully behind the bid".
No doubt another "great sportsman", Vladimir Putin, will be polishing up his judo holds and stocking up on caviar in the Kremlin, where the IOC cavalcade fetches up on Wednesday to give back-markers Moscow the once-over on the final leg of their whistle-stop tour.
My own assessment is that when it comes to writing up their report they will now find it hard to choose between London and Paris, and will not even try. Both bids are outstanding, but Paris, judged on this showing, seems to have that extra touch of class. As a seasoned observer of big fight build-ups as well as Olympic bids, it seems to me that the two leading contenders for 2012 are boxing their way through these early rounds towards a split decision in Singapore on 6 July. But whether they are boxing cleverly enough remains to be seen.
There is some danger it might soon degenerate into an unseemly boulevard brawl, with the Belgian referee, Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, calling the combatants together in mid-ring and issuing both with a public warning to keep their punches up. Disqualification may not be on the cards but it could well be that the judges are advised to deduct points for fighting dirty when it comes to totting up the scores in Singapore.
At the moment Paris are ahead but they must beware of sucker punches. They are talking a good fight - talking a tad too much perhaps as one detects a hint of nervousness as the odds against their anticipated victory marginally lengthen. But they remain the safest bet, with less to transform into a working Olympic citadel.
"Like all the bids we have both assets and problems," acknowledges Paris's bid leader, Philippe Baudillon. "But we will cope." What has transpired in Paris, with industrial disputes, scare stories about corruption and allegations of the odd breach of protocol, will have no more bearing on the eventual outcome of Parisian aspirations than L'Affaire Livingstone on London's. Nawal said as much, stressing that the strikes had no effect on their work, though the fact that they happened "would be analysed". But she added: "To see the workers marching with Paris 2012 T-shirts was a good sign."
However, there is genuine needle here that London spinmeisters may have been indulging in some surreptitious sniping; behind-the-hand briefings encouraging observers to find flaws among the foie gras and pick holes in the Paris bid. There has certainly been contact with the IOC's ethics commission over one particular incident.
"Will it get any dirtier than this?" enquired Paris's furrowed-browed media chief, Jerome L'Enfant. Maybe, but Rogge's admonishing finger is poised.
So far Paris have resisted the temptation to declare out loud that visitors to the 2012 Games might actually prefer to stroll down the Champs d'Elysées rather than Stratford High Street for their post-Games aperitif, but you get the drift.
Yet their bid is perhaps not quite as good as the one which suffered a first- round KO to Beijing. The proposed village is on the small side and there are potentially nightmarish security problems in the residential area around the Stade de France. But the fact that the stadium is established and served by an existing and efficient transport system remains a major plus. "To have infrastructure in place is very important," said Nawal. So, she added, is a compact Olympic park, which Paris do not have and London are planning. Significantly the French are now talking up the regeneration aspect of their bid, which seems a touch of tokenism beside London's. But the arrogance that bedevilled their two previous attempts has been replaced by an almost unbecoming, certainly unGallic modesty, though some might consider the renaming of their stadium - Stade de France Paris 2012 - a trifle presumptuous.
Paris have finally have raised their game with a performance that has been slick and stylish, and their eagerness to win at the third time of asking is all too apparent. Their mayor, Bernard Delanoe, even more voluble than our Ken, spoke thus of the IOC visitors: "It is not only that they are extremely competent, they are really nice."
Well, if wining and dining doesn't work, perhaps a bit of flannel will. If nothing else, Paris have given us plenty of food for thought.
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