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A tale of two cities as London and Paris await Olympic destiny

IT WILL be the best of times, or it will be the worst of times, when the tale of two cities reaches its conclusion in Singapore at 12.46pm BST on Wednesday, July 6.

In London and Paris, at that exact moment thousands of people who will be attending street parties and millions of citizens of the two capitals watching on TV will await the words of Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, as he steps forward in the Raffles City Convention Centre in Singapore to announce which of the two cities will host the 2012 Oympic Games.

Many hundreds of millions of people around the planet are expected to tune in to watch the announcement. As soon as the name of the winner is stated, there will be bedlam and joy in one city, and groans and misery in the other - cue party of the year, or a wake.

Billions of pounds and tens of thousands of jobs, are at stake, not to mention honour and prestige, and a boost to the tourism economy of the winning city which will last for years. On a smaller scale, the team who have worked very hard on the London bid will either move smoothly into new jobs organising the Games, or be redundant on July 31, as one of them ruefully confirmed last week.

Unless every pundit on the planet is wrong, it will be either London or Paris which will win. The other three contenders, Madrid, Moscow and New York, are expected to be voted out during the sequence of votes which takes place in the morning of July 6 after each competing city puts forward its final presentation.

For London in particular, that ultimate opportunity to win support from each of the 115 IOC members entitled to vote is utterly crucial. In Glasgow this week on a charm offensive to rally the Scottish press behind the bid, one of London's ambassadors Steve Cram admitted there had been mistakes early in the bid process but said these had been learned from.

Cram, who will host London's street party in Trafalgar Square with Dame Kelly Holmes, indicated that the final messages which will be conveyed to the IOC are overwhelmingly positive - public approval ratings of the bid are soaring nationally, big business is supportive, the Government is fully behind London. And according to the London bid team they are now on the heels of Paris, which has been hot favourite to win for over a year, and expect to overtake the French capital in Singapore.

When it was announced that Prime Minister Tony Blair would attend Singapore to promote London's cause, it seemed that the presence of such a world figure could clinch things for London. Add David Beckham to the London party and you surely have a winning combination.

Enter President Jacques Chirac. The French head of state - though he might think he is, Blair is not our empereur - is now also to attend, and shrewd politician that he is, Chirac may have already stolen a march on his 'old friend' from Downing Street.

For unless he can hitch a ride to a passing space rocket, there is no way that Blair can attend the final presentation to be made by London and be back in Scotland to start hosting the G8 summit at Gleneagles which begins on July 6. Chirac, however, can afford to arrive later and he has pledged to be part of Paris's presentation party at 9am BST.

Much of the final rallying of support will be done in Singapore's hotels before the 117th plenary session of the IOC. That is where Blair and Chirac's personal qualities will prove vital.

Sport and politics should not mix, of course, but in the real world all things are political. Of course, the delegates might not give a fig for either the Prime Minister or le President once they queue to meet, greet and be charmed (as they surely will) by New York's chief supporter - a great Olympic champion by the name of Muhammad Ali.

But if The Greatest pulls off this one it will be a bigger shock than his defeat of George Foreman. It is between London and Paris, and there's nothing New York, Moscow or Madrid can do about it. The former, incidentally, does not appear to have any top-level Russian government figure going, while Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is hardly a household name, hence the presence of Real Madrid's Raul and Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain in Madrid's party.

Steve Cram insists that celebrities and politicians no longer have the clout they once had in promoting bids, largely because the IOC now consists of more former top sports people who are more interested in stadia and athletes' villages than handshakes from ministers and mayors. But the IOC does take account of politicians and of their politics - for instance, how will the contrasting stances of Blair and Chirac on the Iraq War go down with the delegates?

It was also a political brouhaha which first smeared London's bid. Mayor Ken Livingstone's alleged 'racist gibe' to a newspaper reporter and his refusal to apologise grabbed the headlines just as the IOC delegates visited the city.

London then had to cancel its plans for subsidies for competing athletes after Rogge. The BBC Panorama investigation 'Buying the Games' also led to Bulgarian IOC member Ivan Slavkov being suspended and upset a lot of IOC people. Interestingly, BBC chairman Michael Grade is reportedly going to persuade delegates that the corporation - which will presumably earn millions as host broadcaster - really loves the IOC after all.

Add London's poor showing - at first - over transport and infrastructure, and you can see why London got off to a slow start. The IOC has re-evaluated these problems and London's facilities are now rated as highly as Paris's, except that Paris has most of its facilities in place and London has still to build many of them. But there is no gainsaying London's surge, and the only question is if it has come too late.

All the commentators, and everyone involved in London's bid, state that Sebastian Coe's arrival as London bid chief was the single biggest factor in the transformation of the city's bid from probable also-ran to strong contender. Lord Coe's charm and his ability to open doors with IOC members paid dividends for London in ways that no politician could match. And as a former MP, Coe was also able to speak to politicians and bring them 'on side'.

Paris is still favourite, and it is a dickens of a job for the double Olympic gold medallist, but if Coe leads London to victory on Wednesday, July 6, it will be a far, far better thing than he has ever done before.

 
 
 

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