Nawal's even hands hold the key

London has four days to impress Morocco's former champion

London need have no fear that Britain's involvement in the Iraq war will prejudice the Muslim woman who heads the International Olympic Committee's inspection team when they visit the capital next week to assess its capabilities for hosting the 2012 Games.

Although she is now forbidden to comment as chair of the Evaluation Commission, Nawal El Moutawakel, a 43-year-old mother of two from Casablanca, has previously made it clear that she does not believe the IOC will be influenced by events in Iraq.

Two years ago, she told me: "I have heard there could be this Islamic vote against London because of the Iraq war, but I will be surprised of such a feeling does exist among IOC members. I am certain that whoever gets the 2012 Games will be decided on sporting issues, not politics, in the true spirit of Olympism."

This was before Nawal knew she would be in charge of the 12-person jury now sitting in judgement on London and its four rivals. But one doubts that her views have changed. She also said at the time: "Personally I welcome London back in the Olympic race. Britain is a nation of great athletes and sporting traditions. If the bid is the best, it will win. I say, 'Good luck to London'."

Nawal, the first woman to head an Evaluation Commission, is best remembered as the young girl who, in 1984, became the first North African woman, and first female Muslim, to win an Olympic gold medal - in the 400m hurdles in Los Angeles. Since then she has continued leaping barriers as the only Muslim woman on the IOC. She speaks four languages and is the chief executive of a banking organisation in Morocco.

Interestingly, Nawal is by no means the only Anglophile on the commission, who are currently in Madrid on the first leg of their five-city break. The Namibian athlete Frankie Fredericks is a good friend of both London's bid leader, Sebastian Coe, and vice-chairman, Alan Pascoe, while South Africa's Sam Ramsamy was exiled in London while he fought apartheid and ran Sanroc (the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee).

The commission also include two Australians, two Canadians, an Argentinian, a Swiss, an Algerian, a Singaporean and a Dutchwoman. They will find London's team in defiantly upbeat mood. While the popular notion seems to be that London has about as much chance of pipping Paris as Manchester United have of overhauling Chelsea in the Premiership, Coe, even as a true-Blues brother, strongly demurs. Paris, he insists, is catchable, although he acknowledges that it could go to the wire, with the political nuances of the voting in Singapore on 6 July even swinging in the direction of Madrid, or possibly even New York. Moscow, at this stage, seems out of the equation.

If London's bid is falling down, as one newspaper speculated last week, there is no evidence of this among those preparing meticulously to receive the Evaluation Commission. Coe dismisses it as "total bollocks - a mischievous piece of journalistic imagination.

"I am in regular touch with all our board members, and not a single one has expressed a shred of doubt that we are in with a great fighting chance."

As we reported last week, Coe himself acknowledges that Paris is in front, and have been from the off, but believes the favourite is beginning to feel the heat, which London will certainly turn up when the commission drop by for their four-day inspection. Key London 2012 ambassadors such as Kelly Holmes, Jonathan Edwards and Tanni Grey-Thompson will be on hand to press the flesh, as will IOC member Princess Anne. One hopes in her case the handing will be uncharacteristically glad.

Nothing has been left to chance. Last week saw a rehearsal, and next week there will be what amounts to a full dress-rehearsal before the real drama begins on Wednesday week. Details of the itinerary are a secret, not only because of security measures to foil any anti-Games demos, but because the IOC demand it that way.

What we do know is that the inspection party will spend most of the time at pres-entations, examining 17 aspects of the bid listed in London's outstanding Candidature File, which is thought to be the best of those submitted to the IOC. They will visit proposed Olympic venues, including (one hopes not ominously) the Dome, freshly draped in London 2012 banners; drive through the new Channel tunnel rail-link with east London; have a working meeting with the Prime Minister and Cabinet members at Downing Street; and dine with the Queen at Buckingham Palace on the one permitted social occasion.

One wonders whether commission members will take the opportunity to quiz HM about her reported view that Paris is the best bet for 2012. Could be a fascinating discussion, but recording devices are banned.

Apart from this soirée, there can be no other wining or dining. And certainly no proffering of gifts. Coe himself was on the commission which reformed IOC visits after the freeloading which tainted Salt Lake City. Last week the British Olympic Association chairman, Craig Reedie, led a dry run by a specially selected shadow squad which Coe described as "choreographed to the last detail".

Reedie said: "It went extremely well and gave us the opportunity to nail a few wrinkles. We replicated the real visit as far as we could, and everywhere we went we found people rooting for the bid, and sayingit is a bloody good one. We hope and believe the commission will get the same impression."

With the formidable Nawal directing the jury, London at least can be assured a fair trial.

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