Sydney's ugly answer to Olympic riddle

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THERE COMES a point in most people's lives when they stop and ask themselves: Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I here? For me, that moment came during September 1993 as I sat in a stuffy, viewless room with approximately 50 fellow journalists who, for all I knew, were experiencing the same feelings of angst and displacement. At least they did if they had any sense.

The task upon which we were all engaged, closeted in our Monte Carlo conference room, was that of predicting to which city the International Olympic Committee - closeted in the luxuriant Hotel de Paris - would award the 2000 Games.

Of the five prospective hosts who had gathered for this quadrennial utterance of the Olympic oracle, Istanbul and Berlin had not even a faint hope of attracting a significant proportion of the 89 available IOC votes.

Manchester, back again after the dismal failure of their bid for the 1996 Games, had come up with an ingenious projection of round-by-round voting which ended with them victorious. The General Election, apparently, was about to be won by the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, the two heavyweight contenders, Sydney and Peking, were working to each other's body.

Beyond those basic facts, for the increasingly frantic members of the Fourth Estate, there was little to catch hold of but swirls of rumour, fleeting impressions, non-attributable intimations. Theory and counter- theory travelled around the stuffy room for a long, barmy week as the five basic tools of the trade - who, what, why, where, when - were rendered ineffectual.

Sydney, we were told, had the best technical bid - "bloody near perfect" one IOC member had claimed. But that had apparently been followed by a sense among some IOC members that the Sydney bidders had become cocksure, which had adversely affected their prospects...

Peking's bid was fronted by Chen Xitong, who as mayor of the city had ordered troops to open fire on protesting students in Tiananmen Square four years earlier. Bit of a public relations hitch there, you might think. But the IOC president, Juan-Antonio Samaranch, was said to favour the Chinese because the prospect of opening up new sporting links with their regime was the kind of thing a committee - say the Nobel Peace Prize committee - might look upon favourably.

On the day before the election, 90 white roses, one for each IOC member, were delivered to the Hotel de Paris by the International Campaign for Tibet. A message was attached to each one: "Remember the political prisoners". Would IOC members do any such thing? Hard to tell. No one was saying.

All week, individual IOC members were canvassed discreetly in hotel bars and lobbies, indicating preferences, possibilities and even, in some cases, firm commitments.

But the nature of the exercise - secret voting, with the least successful city dropping out round-by-round - meant that their true intentions seemed, to adapt Winston Churchill's phrase about Russia, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

In the preceding months, Samaranch had trailed the IOC's availability teasingly around the block. In Manchester, holding hands with children from a Sale infant school, he was cheered by children waving Union Jacks. Asked whether the rain which had fallen on that day would have a dampening effect on the city's chances, he replied: "We are used to rain. When I am travelling and I find rain in a country, I always think it is a lucky country." Oooh. Bet you say that to all the bids.

In Sydney, he was pictured with schoolchildren sporting Aboriginal decorations and costume. "I am happy to be here," he declared, "and I hope to come again, many, many times - maybe also in the year 2000!" Tell you what, cobber, play your cards right and you could be in there.

And so to the reckoning. Denis Howell, who led Birmingham's bid for the 1992 Olympics, said he had 25 votes in the bag. Birmingham polled eight votes. Eight years on, Bob Scott, leader of the Manchester bid, predicted 20 votes in the first round. Manchester polled 11 votes, and Sydney eventually defeated Peking by 45 votes to 43. Who could have predicted that? Even that hugely experienced observer of IOC matters, John Rodda of The Guardian, had called it wrongly.

But then Rodda presumably didn't know about the $Aus105,000 (pounds 42,000) it now transpires that the Australian Olympic Committee president, John Coates, produced on the night before the vote with the intention of swaying two wavering African nations. Par for the course, it now appears.

Personally, I feel more settled about the whole Monte Carlo experience after this month's revelations, knowing that what was wrapped in the mystery inside the enigma was not a riddle, but a bung.