Olympic Way, Manchester, England: Jim White had his doubts. But his home city wants the 2000 Games so badly, it even has an answer to the rain

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LAST TIME, in a run-in with smog-choked Athens, neighbourly Melbourne, and Atlanta, home of Coca-Cola, to host the Olympics, Manchester polled 11 votes out of 91 - about as good a performance as Malta managed in the Eurovision Song Contest. This time it is up against Sydney, Peking, Berlin, Brasilia and Milan, a parade of international glamour.

Since the city announced it was to bid again for the Olympics, it has seemed to me, exercising Mancunian scepticism from exile in London, that you would need the blind optimism of Graham Taylor, Ted Dexter and the fans of Manchester City combined to anticipate the Games for 2000 taking place in my home town.

Seen from London, everything about Manchester's bid appears touched by a desperate mediocrity: the weather, the facilities, the fact that John Major has given it his whole- hearted support. What song, for instance, will they produce to match Montserrat Caballe and Freddie Mercury singing 'Barcelona'? New Order doing an electronic version of 'Home, Home On The (Whalley) Range'? Or Morrissey teaming up with Lisa Stansfield to revive the old Smiths number, 'Manchester, Manchester, So Much To Answer For'?

Surely, I thought, come the International Olympic Committee ballot in Monte Carlo on 23 September, Manchester's bid will be buried, a posse of Moss Side drug dealers firing a salvo of automatic gunfire over the coffin.

Step off the train at Manchester Piccadilly station, as 20 IOC members will do tomorrow morning (whizzed there on the new rail-link from the new terminal at the airport), and things begin to take on another perspective. Every building in the city centre flies a flag saying 'Manchester 2000'; the overhead wires of the glitzy new tram network are decorated with the five Olympic rings; shop windows are crammed with official merchandise (Manchester the Olympic lion, a cuddly snip at pounds 10.99). Walking through the town you think, blimey, if the place erupts like this just for the bid, imagine what will happen if they win it.

No wonder the locals are supportive. There is no doubt that winning the Games would be an extraordinary boost for the town: pounds 4bn of investment, 11,000 permanent jobs, 35 years of infra-structural development telescoped into five. These are the statistics being bandied around. But if the Olympic movement is such a charity, why not host the Games in New Delhi, or Mogadishu, or Liverpool, places that could really use a lift?

The question the IOC members, who are there to inspect the place before deciding on their vote, want answered is: other than raining them off, what can Manchester do for the Olympics?

Oddly, they will discover, a considerable amount; perhaps more even than any of its rivals. The front runners, Sydney and Peking, both have serious flaws. Australian seasons are all wrong for the American television programmers: a Games in October would clash disastrously with the start of the American football season. And the Chinese have their own public relations problem with their blunt attitude to democracy.

Image aside, Manchester has no serious flaws. This may seem unlikely from down in the capital, but then Manchester does not require the support of sneering London. It needs the nod from a majority of the 91 voting members of the IOC, who, from the moment they arrive in town, are the recipients of the finest lobbying effort this country can supply. And while we may be international no-hopers at football, tennis, cricket and rugby, at lobbying we are up there on the winners' podium.

Last Friday, I invited myself along to watch as an advance guard of three IOC members flew in from New Zealand, Western Samoa and Guatemala. Each of the 91 voters is allowed a four- day visit to a bidding city. Manchester crams a lot into its four days, at least two of which are spent in London, lunching at Downing Street, dining at Buckingham Palace and watching Wimbledon. But before delegates get to glad-hand the Prime Minister, the Princess Royal and Jeremy Bates, each one first meets Bob Scott, the theatrical impresario whose idea it was, a decade ago, that Manchester should bid.

'Bloody hell, Bob,' said the New Zealand delegate as he walked into the plush presentation suite where he was to see computer animations of the proposed Olympic sites. 'Get a bit of government money and you spend it on swanky offices. Typical bloody administrator.'

'Ignore this man,' Mr Scott joshed. 'He is in the pay of Sydney.'

Mr Scott oozes a relaxed charm as he second-guesses most of Manchester's supposed drawbacks.

Bother in Moss Side? There are more murders in Atlanta in a day than in Manchester in a year.

Infrastructure? For the last bid in 1989 he promised a new airport terminal, a rail-link and a rapid transit system. All three are now in operation.

The weather? Apparently the North-west's is the perfect climate for athletic achievement, the humidity is non-existent, the rainfall in July is less than in Sydney in October. And anyway, why worry: 15 of the 25 Olympic sports are indoors.

Ah, but how will it be paid for, and will things be done on time?

Mr Scott has learnt a lot from his last, seat-of-the-pants bid. He has learnt what delegates want of a city - a safe, trouble-free Games in a place that will be enhanced rather than bankrupted by the Olympian presence - so on the subject of 'delivery', as it is called in the Games jargon, he is on his most confident ground. In the dossier given to every visitor is a copy of a letter from No 10, guaranteeing that, should the organisers fail to raise the necessary money from the private sector, the Government will underwrite the lot. All pounds 2bn of it (How Eurotunnel would love correspondence like that). And it's not just promises, promises. The Government gave a pounds 75m advance to the bid committee, win or lose, in early November. As Bob Scott guides the delegates round the city in chauffeur-driven Rovers, they see a Manchester awash, not with potential, but with building sites. Overcoming planning restrictions with some dispatch, the building of an indoor arena and a velodrome and the clearing of the main stadium site were under way by December. So there is nothing hyperbolic about the way Mr Scott expresses himself in the definite tense.

'This is the start of the Olympic Way,' he says, as his guests peer at a set of roadworks. 'This is our new indoor arena, which will open in 1996,' he says as they don hard hats and skip over scaffolding.

So far, Mr Scott's tactics have been exemplary. He has concentrated his efforts on the last 90 days before the ballot, so that his bid is freshest in the voters' minds (Sydney did all its lobbying last winter). He has watched in glee as his opponents have shot themselves in the feet (Berlin commissioned a dossier on the sexual proclivities and bribability of the IOC members). Compared with Milan, his town may not be the most delightful place for elderly IOC members to spend July 2000, but none of them could complain about the planning.

'Manchester has built its strategy on losing last,' he explained. 'You have to be glamorous to win the first round of voting, but after the bottom city drops out and the votes are transferred in the second round, the game changes. We play it patiently. Being acquainted with Labour Party politics helps. The ward elections in Gorton have taught me a lot.

'I think there's a growing belief in the possibility of us doing it, it's no more than that. I get nervous arousing too much expectation. In any case, it is a fight worth losing. Purely by bidding we've won pounds 300m worth of investment here. Manchester's image worldwide has leapt a notch or two. And, on the streets, there is a real sense that things are better than they were.'

I'd vote for that. And don't be surprised if, come 23 September, the people who count will too.

On the journey home, however, as the train passed through Manchester's southern suburbs, another thought occurs. Just outside Stockport, the visitor sees a new office block which sports a huge sign reading 'Manchester 2000' on its glass- clad front. Above it is another sign saying 'All 80,000 square feet available now.' Manchester really needs these Games.

Manchester, the cradle of the industrial revolution, the commercial giant that led the empire into the 20th century, now sees its future in the 21st century predicated upon winning the right to host a fortnight of running, jumping and throwing.

Forget collapsing hotels, or chinless sports teams, a sharper example of this country's decline has yet to be found.

(Photograph omitted)

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