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It was inadvertent, no doubt. But Britain’s double Olympic champion middle-distance runner Kelly Holmes recently put her finger on why Paris is favourite to win the race to host the 2012 Olympic Games.
Dame Kelly observed: “I have taken years and years to achieve my dream …[London’s] Olympic bid has not had as long.” If the French capital does beat Madrid, Moscow and New York in the vote on July 6, it will similarly have taken years and years to achieve its Olympic dream.
It bid for the 1992 Games in 1986 in Lausanne, Switzerland, but came second to Barcelona. It tried again for the 2008 Games in 2001 in Moscow, but managed only third place, behind Toronto and Beijing. Over this 19-year period, none of its four rivals has featured in the final vote, although Moscow hosted the Games in 1980 and London in 1908 and 1948.
Paris’s latest bid faces an important test next week, when International Olympic Committee inspectors, fresh from visits to Madrid, London and New York, arrive in town to gauge its strength.
They will find a city bathed in a colourful light show, with dozens of public buildings sporting the colours of the Olympic rings. Lit up in yellow, red, green and blue are the national parliament, the town hall and four bridges.
Bertrand Delanoe, Paris’s socialist mayor, this week unveiled the Olympic landmark, a 75m metal pole supporting 10 inflatable rings lit from the inside in the colours of the games.
Towering over run-down Batignolles in northern Paris, where the Olympic village is planned, this oversized glowing doughnut spike can be seen for 10km, according to the mayor’s office. Even corporate sponsors have caught on, with advertising group Publicis on lighting up its showpiece headquarters on the Champs Elysees.
With 450 journalists also expected, it will be the first time that the 2012 project has been subjected to sustained outside scrutiny. If the Paris bid survives the week, it will come an important step closer to its goal of international sport’s most glittering prize.
If there is doubt about this, it is chiefly because the bid appears less ambitious than those of its rivals. Most infrastructure is in place and the proposed Olympic stadium, the Stade de France, is already a fixture, rather than the apple of a developer’s eye. “What would be the legacy of a Paris bid?” critics ask. In years to come, where would be the evidence that the games had ever been staged there?
Some feel Paris’s tactics underline this. “They are treading water,” one IOC member. “They are trying to make sure they don’t make a mistake, but that’s often when you make a mistake, because you are not doing anything.” Its red three-volume bid book is more clipped and austere than those of its rivals. But it has some classy touches, such as President Jacques Chirac’s handwritten “Cher Ami” on a letter to IOC president Jacques Rogge.
In recent weeks, the bid team has also had to answer questions about its proposed aquatics centre and an unhelpful demonstration next Thursday by trade unions which will jog memories about an Air France pilots’ strike called off hours before the 1998 World Cup in France.
But these have the feel of irritants rather than serious problems. And after the white-knuckle ride of Athens and its race to be ready for the 2004 Olympics, many IOC members may see the appeal of what might be characterised as an “idiot-proof games”, staged by a host with bags of experience.
A further point in the French bid’s favour may be its stance on Iraq, which it may use to tap into residual anti-Americanism on the IOC. Says one IOC member: “They are not part of the allied force in Iraq which they are playing very much to their advantage. The diplomatic service are active on that.” Paris’s ace of trumps, though, notwithstanding the previous bid’s mistakes four years ago in Moscow, may be simply that it has passed this way before.
This can foster sympathy among the Olympic movement’s eclectic, 100-strong electorate. But it should also result in greater understanding of the electoral process.
“Repeated bidding gives you an advantage,” says one IOC member. “How? First of all, you know the people. You have met them. They feel a little bit more obliged to you. Maybe some of them will say we couldn’t help you last time with Beijing bidding, but you have stamina. In contrast, for a first-time bidder to win, you have got to have an extraordinarily lucky situation.”
As Kelly Holmes knows, front-running doesn’t always pay in sport. But for now Paris looks well-placed to fulfil a 20-year dream.