London neck and neck with Paris as Olympic rivals fade

Remarkable comeback by UK capital as long-awaited report is expected to eliminate Madrid, Moscow and New York
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The Independent Online

When the starting gun was fired last May for the race to host the 2012 Olympic games, London stumbled out of the blocks, trailing Paris and Madrid. Tomorrow, the bell will sound for the last lap and, in a remarkable turnaround, London will find itself shoulder to shoulder with the front-runner Paris - Madrid having long since been left trailing with the two stragglers, New York and Moscow.

When the starting gun was fired last May for the race to host the 2012 Olympic games, London stumbled out of the blocks, trailing Paris and Madrid. Tomorrow, the bell will sound for the last lap and, in a remarkable turnaround, London will find itself shoulder to shoulder with the front-runner Paris - Madrid having long since been left trailing with the two stragglers, New York and Moscow.

The long-awaited report from the Olympic Evaluation Commission, which visited London in February, will arrive from Lausanne at lunchtime. No one from the London bid is taking anything for granted, but the belief is that the capital will do extremely well. As will Paris.

"There is little doubt that London will get a brilliant report," a source close to the Paris bid said. "But we expect Paris to come out well too."

It is an amazing turnaround for London, engineered by the master of middle-distance running, Sebastian Coe, the Tory peer, who won 1,500m golds at the 1980 and the 1984 Olympics.

In 2004, London just scraped into the last five. Then the capital was criticised for the apathetic political and public support and condemned for its creaking transport system and "obsolete" trains. Plans to ferry spectators to and from the stadiums in east London were "flawed", the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said. The underground system was "overcrowded" while hopes that buses would run at 32mph were "unrealistic".

The conclusion was simple: without massive investment London's bid was dead in the water. That verdict cost the head of Barbara Cassani, the American businesswoman who had led the campaign, and opened the way for Lord Coe. With his sporting connections, Olympic past and political savvy, he has worked what many recognise as a miracle.

"Sebastian Coe is fantastic," said the former president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch. "Before he took over, London was nothing, now they have a good bid."

Lord Coe did two crucial things - he tackled the issue of transport head on, turning it into a strength when the Evaluation Commission visited. He told them of the £17bn pledged by the Government to improve public transport between now and 2012, and drove them through the tunnel that will run a high-speed train from King's Cross to Stratford in about seven minutes. He also raised public support from a paltry 53 per cent last May to 79 per cent 12 months later.

More than a million people have pledged their support online. Lord Coe also ensured that the Government was onside. Tony Blair will spend a day in Singapore in July when the IOC members are balloted and the winner declared. He and his wife Cherie also took a leading role in glad-handing the Olympic assessment delegation when it visited earlier this year.

Paris has the edge here, however, as the French President Jacques Chirac is expected to present the city's final case in Singapore. When London's bid is presented Mr Blair will be on a plane back to London. There have also been persistent rumours that Prince William may be drafted in. Even if he isn't, David Beckham will be, and it is hoped that his global reach and wow factor will turn a few wavering heads.

It has not all been plain sailing, however. Last month, the IOC rapped London on the knuckles over its £15m incentives scheme for athletes, which was withdrawn. There has also been criticism of the glitz surrounding London's bid. Compared to Paris's low-key campaign, London seems like a fashionable Soho party. Many feel that the IOC will not be influenced by the Beckhams and Blairs of the world, and even that their input is counterproductive.

Many businesses, which will be relocated if the bid goes ahead, have also withdrawn their support in protest at the compensation packages on offer. While public support in London is impressive, Paris is comfortably ahead with 85 per cent of citizens in favour.

A spokeswoman for 2012 yesterday defended Beckham's input. "People such as David Beckham are inspirational sporting heroes," she said. "David is from the East End and played football on Hackney Marshes."

But neither has Paris had a flawless run-in. It's much-vaunted stadium, the Stade de France, may be up and running in stark contrast to the uncompleted Wembley, but it has had trouble with sight-lines and transportation.

Lord Coe remains confident. He told The Independent on Sunday yesterday: "There is real commitment to this bid right across the UK.

"An extraordinary amount of effort and work has gone into delivering a strong and exciting technical bid that has the finance, planning permission and guarantees in place for a sensational London games in 2012."

Cities go head to head

THE ARTS

LONDON (Melvyn Bragg) "London is infinitely more lively and varied. Theatre is so far ahead in London it's embarrassing; galleries are more accessible and better laid out than in Paris. In Paris they tend to badger you to death with art."

PARIS (Jack Lang, former French culture minister) "Paris has a wider dimension. It is a lyrical, brilliant city and a cultural and intellectual capital. I don't want to undermine London's bid, but if we compare, Paris is superior. Our artistic life is extraordinary."

ARCHITECTURE

LONDON (Nigel Coates, Royal College of Art) "London is kaleidoscopic, cosmopolitan, international. It's also grittier, which some prefer to prettiness and romance. Any new building in Paris has to be a grand gesture, but in London buildings work on all levels."

PARIS (Jean-Pierre Café, head of town planning for Paris 2012) "The Olympic village will have this century's best architecture ... Thejudges want compactness: it won't take more than 10 minutes to travel from one side of beautiful Paris to another."

NIGHTLIFE

LONDON (Peter Stringfellow, nightclub entrepreneur) "We win hands down. We do vibrant and traditional better. It's because they are more parochial. London cinemas and theatres are in English, which tourists understand. London nightclubs are more exciting."

PARIS (Jacki Clerico, Moulin Rouge proprietor) "Paris is the city where a society of cabarets, theatres, cafés, bars and restaurants blossomed. It has a wealth of venues, atmospheres and styles. Saint Germain, the Marais and the Champs-Elysées are the places to be."

CUISINE

LONDON (Antony Worrall Thompson) "London is a useful melting pot, with restaurants of 70 different nationalities. Our chefs have flair and inventiveness and we have far trendier restaurants. They think we're all roast beef and cabbage. They're wrong."

PARIS (Alain Ducasse) "French gastronomy has never been so varied, fresh or creative. If Paris wins, visitors will discover the art of eating well here. There are many good restaurants around the world, but only here is the cuisine alive and passionate."

Interviews by Tom Anderson, Rhiannon Harries and Marion Delros

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