Winter Olympics: Switzerland create a little bid of Olympic history

Frugality is a Sion of the new times for an aspiring host.
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The Independent Online
A LARGE envelope lay invitingly on the bed of my hotel room. I opened it with some curiosity. A note inside read, simply: "Welcome to Sion, Swiss candidate for the 2006 Winter Olympics. We wish you a pleasant stay."

Nothing else - not even a solitary Swiss franc. I should have known, really, as the envelope was not brown, but white, a symbol of an attempt to win the Games that is so clean it positively squeaks.

Sion, a small, medieval town of 26,000 inhabitants, nestles in the Rhone Valley, an hour's drive from Lausanne, headquarters of the International Olympic Committee where, just over a week ago, the slush hit the fan. By coincidence the nation that has housed IOC plc for three-quarters of a century is now a front-runner to become the first Olympic venue to be elected under the allegedly corruption-proof electoral system belatedly introduced after Salt Lake City was exposed as a sort of Sodom-on-snow.

Not unexpectedly the sober citizens of Sion, still smarting after losing out last time to Salt Lake, are determined that their new bid will be as pure as the snow driven down from the surrounding Alps. The books are open to public inspection and any "gifts" handed over to visiting dignitaries, especially those wearing the IOC badge of office, are scrupulously recorded in the Swiss newspapers. Quiz the press officer Jean-Raphael Fontannaz about freebies given to the three members of the IOC evaluation committee from Japan, Sweden and Germany, when they made their formal inspection visit last October and he unfolds from his top pocket a small piece of paper with a typewritten list. It reads: "One pocket guide to Sion with welcome letter; plastic pen, notebook, 10 stamped postcards, plastic paperweight, souvenir Olympic coin, ski jacket [to visit the pistes] and inexpensive Swatch watch. All with the Sion 2006 logo and totalling within the $200 limit imposed by the IOC." Additionally, he says, they were loaned a mobile telephone during their three-day stay and handed a personalised photo album as they left.

No fur coats, no tiaras, no promises of scholarships, free medical care, sexual favours, Alpine holidays or chalet- sharing during the Games with Roger Moore, whose house overlooks the finishing line of the proposed downhill event at Crans-Montana. And no offspring of any IOC member will be playing first (or even second) fiddle with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

Not that anyone from the IOC ever asked, say the Sion people, but they were discreetly made aware they had entered a bung-free zone. No wages of Sion to rebound on them later. Being so close to the heart of the movement, the last thing Sion can afford is even a sliver of scandal.

"It would be a disaster," admits Jean-Daniel Mudry, the 53-year-old Swiss Army general who has been drafted in as director general of the 2006 operation. "But it simply won't happen. From the outset we made it clear that we would never involve ourselves in anything underhand. Even before we knew about Salt Lake our motto was "transparency - and fair play". Maybe we could be seen as a little naive, but we would not want to win the Games dishonestly. It would be the same as winning a gold medal using drugs.

"In fact, when we began the process we were asked by our regional government what our reaction would be if we were asked for bribes. Our answer was emphatic, `No way'."

Refreshingly naive they may appear to be, but those behind Sion's third attempt to obtain the winter Games seem to know the score which, at the moment, adds up in their favour, with an impressive report from the IOC evaluation committee putting them marginally ahead of their closest rivals from across the Alps, Turin. Austria's Klagenfurt, Finland's Helsinki, Proprad-Tatry, in Slovakia and Zakopane, Poland, are the other candidates. The choice will be made 82 days from now in Seoul under the "cleaned-up" regulations which will see candidates whittled down to a short-list of two by an electoral college with the full IOC membership making the final decision by ballot.

Logically Sion should skate home, offering stability, security and perhaps a little sanity after the events of recent weeks. With a mix of Swiss efficiency and military precision, the bid is environmentally and financially sound with the majority of Games sites within 30 minutes of the town centre.

Twice before Sion has been a runner-up - to Denver (later switched to Innsbruck) in 1976 and to Salt Lake City for 2002. General Mudry also led that bid. "It was astonishing because we all accepted that Salt Lake's bid was the best, so they really had no need to bribe anyone."

For Sion it will be three strikes and out if they fail. One hopes that they might get a result, not least because a nation that has such close links with international sport as the home of Fifa, Uefa and the IOC, Switzerland has never really been a leading player in the arena. It is also the cradle of winter sports, but has not had the Games since 1948. Now one senses that the crisp, invigorating air of the Swiss Alps may be just what the Olympics need.

I must stress that this view is based on some 30 years covering the Olympic scene and not because of any Swiss hospitality afforded during my visit last week. However, I confess to peeping, again with curiosity, into the carrier bag handed to me by my hosts before I left. It contained a T- shirt, a packet of paper tissues, some car stickers and a pen. All souvenirs from Sion and nothing to worry HM Customs, nor, more to the point, Juan Antonio Samaranch's newly appointed bungs-busters. Though a bar of Toblerone might have been nice.

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