Stylish London on the high heels of Paris

The favourites were streets ahead but now Coe's team are only a boulevard behind in race for 2012. Alan Hubbard hears the bidding in two capital cities as Anglo-French battle begins in earnest

With Madrid's copybook at least tempor-arily blotted after Wednesday's events in the Bernabeu, and New York and Moscow trailing as back markers, the five-horse race to stage the Olympics eight years hence is looking more than ever like a tale of two cities, and one that will produce a dickens of a fight.

With Madrid's copybook at least tempor-arily blotted after Wednesday's events in the Bernabeu, and New York and Moscow trailing as back markers, the five-horse race to stage the Olympics eight years hence is looking more than ever like a tale of two cities, and one that will produce a dickens of a fight.

London have scored heavily with a slick, all-singing, all-dancing public presentation of their detailed plans, but Paris, prosaic and understated as their own presentation was, remain ahead on points. Even though London's odds have been cut from 7-2 to 3-1 by William Hill, the serious money is still piling on Paris.

If you swallowed some of the heavy spinning drifting down from the 50th floor of Canary Wharf Tower in Docklands, you would believe London were now streets ahead of Paris instead of a boulevard behind. But this isn't to say they can't catch up, and the momentum has been given a decent shove by Lord Coe's team getting an impressive act together, leaving Paris looking a tad anxiously over their shoulder following Friday's Games show.

Barbara Windsor was there, though Barbara Cassani was not (apparently, the Go-getter relieved of the baton by Coe six months ago "had something else on"). There is a forthcoming plot in EastEnders in which the other Babs may feature, but for the time being she at least has a walk-on part in Carry On London 2012.

And they obviously will do so with genuine hope and inspiration, though having attended launches of the respective bid documents last week, my impression is that while London's has more style, Paris's has a little more substance.

You sense that Paris, as a city, has more real Olympic ambience about it. Their eye-catching slogan "L'Amour des Jeux" (Love of the Games) flutters everywhere, from the Left Bank to the Louvre. So it was all the more surprising that it was London's launch which exuded most joie de vivre. Paris, whose two previous failed bids were bedevilled by over-confidence, this time relied too heavily on protocol and all-male talking heads. It may have been the day Beaujolais Nouveau arrived, but this was a rather sober celebration, a static slide-show compared with London's personality-packed videos, embracing warmth, vibrancy and humour which sent a tingle down the spine. "The most exciting blueprint ever in Olympic or Paralympic history," firmly declared Coe, as much in his stride here as in his running days.

However Paris's bid leader, the 48-year-old former diplomat Philippe Baudillon, is himself a personable chap, who shrugs off criticism that his city's approach lacks pizzazz. He would never say so, but there are mutterings abroad that London's apparent gun-jumping over the bid document and new-found pushiness has found some disfavour within IOC circles. What he does say is: "Ours is a deliberate strategy. As my friend Sebastian Coe knows well, this is like a race. If you start too fast you can be completely burned out at the end. I don't want that to happen. We have our rhythm. We are on course. It doesn't worry me when people say our bid is not glamorous, because we know we can be. When people come to a Games in Paris they will have fun. We can guarantee that."

If there is a major difference it is that Paris holds a possible trump card in the Stade de France, where on Wednesday I watched France play a goalless draw against Poland with only a modest show of their 2012 promotional placards. It is tried and trusted, whereas London's ambitious edifice is a vision. In IOC eyes it could come down to virtual reality versus l'actualité.

The conservatism of the French bid is perhaps its strength, for, after Athens, will the IOC want to risk heart failure from fretting about whether Olympic facilities, and in particular the main stadium, will be ready on time? Whatever London may believe, the spectre of Picketts Lock has not been erased from IOC consciousness.

In most other respects the bids are well balanced, parading icon for icon. London will stage beach volleyball at Horseguards Parade; Paris will feature it, as it was quaintly put to me, "between the legs" of the Eiffel Tower. London has the Dome; Paris will have a SuperDome.

They can match each other pound for euro when it comes to ticket pricing and promised profitability. Neither anticipate "éléphants blancs". Both have impressively professional teams who have absorbed the lessons of past errors. But Paris claims a higher level of popular support, and there is greater evidence of state commitment. Jacques Chirac, whose knowledge of Olympic matters surpasses that of Tony Blair's, has unreservedly backed his passion with government cash.

London's Games village would be in the heart of a regenerated Olympic Park, Paris's in the heart of the city itself, a short stroll from Montmartre, a 45-hectare disused railway yard being transformed into a new arrondissement afterwards to be known as the Olympic Quarter. Though elsewhere Paris is lighter on legacy.

For London to win in Singapore next year it may need an unlikely faux pas by the French. London may not be putting a foot wrong, but Paris is equally determined to stay firmly on both of its own. But who knows, there might yet be a sting in this tale of two cities.

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