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Polluted air hung thick and milky over Beijing during the last week in August, drifting like poisoned fog through teeming outdoor street markets and almost obscuring the high-rise tops of the city's penitentiary-like apartment buildings. The temperature climbed to at least 90° by noon every day, and the heat, combined with the dust and racket from thousands of construction sites and the cacophony of maybe a million car horns honking at maybe a billion bicyclists rolling slowly through narrow, trash-strewn thoroughfares, made Beijing seem pretty much like the Third World City from Hell.
But appearances were deceiving. For beneath that ugly, polluted exterior there lay a city with a dream—a dream that it would play host to the Summer Olympic Games seven years hence, from Aug. 26 to Sept. 10 in the millennial year 2000. Surely this was an impossible dream for such a bleak and chaotic place? On the contrary, it was not only possible, but as of last week it looked as if Beijing had the inside track.
Ninety members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are to gather in Monaco on Sept. 23 to cast secret ballots for one of five very disparate candidate cities for the 2000 Games—Beijing; Berlin; Istanbul; Manchester, England; and Sydney. At the start of the competition for that designation, the best of all candidates was seen by Olympic observers to be breezy, clean Sydney with its sports-crazy population, its superb infrastructure and its location in Oceania, where there has been only one Olympics, the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne. Beijing was considered second-best in the early running, followed by Manchester, Berlin and Istanbul. Then in July there was a press leak of an IOC critique of the technical qualifications for each city, including such items as frequency of international flights, environmental protection, existing telecommunication facilities and the local citizenry's knowledge of foreign languages. Beijing was found wanting in all four categories, so the pundits' rankings changed. Sydney remained No. 1, but now Berlin was No. 2, Manchester No. 3, with Beijing and Istanbul neck and neck for last.
But IOC delegates are notoriously quirky in their voting habits. Many of them don't even read such critiques, and some prefer to pick their Olympic cities by such high-minded standards as the luxury level of the hotel they will stay in during the Games—such as Beijing's massive China World Hotel, where roses in the rooms are fresh each day and concert pianists play at breakfast. Some are swayed by bribes to their vanity—such as Beijing's promise to engrave the names of all current members of the IOC on a plaque on the Great Wall of China if it gets these Games. Of course, some IOC members actually do vote for the city they think will be best for the Olympic movement.
Whatever the motives for their choice, the delegates have been sharply warned by IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch to keep their lips zipped about which city they want to host the Games. Since the IOC's former East-West bloc votes have vanished with the cold war, the outcome of the balloting is harder to call in advance this year. As Michèle Verdier, Samaranch's spokesperson, says, "For the first time we really don't know. Everything will depend on the members' mood on the day. There is high symbolism in the year 2000, and there are remarkably strong contenders. The world is unsure."
Well, not everyone is unsure. In fact, two of the most astute observers of IOC affairs seem relatively certain of what will happen. One is Monique Berlioux, the queenly former Director of the IOC who was sacked by Samaranch in 1985 after 16 years in office. She now serves as a technical adviser to Paris mayor Jacques Chirac and still casts a wide net for information in the Olympic community. "Beijing will win in the first round," Berlioux says. "The IOC has traditionally chosen the less democratic candidate, the one that can be counted on to organize the Gaines without dissent. I don't think Sydney will win and Manchester has no chance. Berlin is out—too many anti-Olympic demonstrations—although it is probably the best candidate. Istanbul is out of the question with all its political problems, tourists being kidnapped, et cetera. Samaranch is for Beijing, of course, though he does not say so."
John Rodda of The Guardian, one of England's national newspapers, is the dean and the best connected of Olympic journalists. "At this point the perceived situation is that Beijing are ahead," he says. "Their strength is that the IOC and particularly Samaranch see the Olympic movement as having a mission in global terms, and to give the Games to Beijing will hasten the process of bringing China into the Western world, a process already started by their moving towards a capitalist society. This will also help Samaranch in his bid to win a Nobel Peace Prize."
Olympic optimism is now rampant in Beijing too, following deep pessimism in the wake of the technical critique. Li Hanping, an executive secretary for media for the bid committee, says, "Our chances are now like a falling stone—the momentum for victory is increasing every second."
No one in China personifies this Olympic momentum better than He Zhenliang, the president of the Chinese Olympic Committee and a vice-president of the IOC. He, a cosmopolitan world traveler and kinetic supersalesman who can deliver his Beijing 2000 pitch in superb English or impeccable French, says, "I have a very good idea of what the exact IOC vote will be, but, of course I will not tell you any numbers. I am extremely optimistic, however, and we are ready—very ready. We have been planning to stage an Olympics since the IOC first recognized us in 1979. And what could be better? China is an incomparable country with 5,000 years of history, one fifth of the world's humanity, so big and so old—and yet so new! We know, of course, that Germany, Australia and Great Britain are far ahead of us in infrastructure and communications. We know we lack many things, but we also know there is plenty of time between now and 2000 for us to produce a grandiose Games."
The bid committee has worked hard to sell its smog-ridden city. When an 11-person IOC commission arrived there last March, a local journalist called it "the most anticipated visit to Beijing since Richard Nixon came in 1972." Newspapers advised citizens on how to behave around the IOC members, printing suggested English phrases they might use. To lighten the pollution, the bid committee arranged for the heat to be turned off in a large part of Beijing so that the chimneys of a number of apartment and office buildings would belch less filth while the IOC was there. Bands and trucked-in crowds of schoolchildren lined the main streets to greet the IOC motorcade as it raced in from the airport. Hundreds of bright banners displayed the Olympic rings and the logos of such IOC commercial sponsors as Kodak and Visa. Billboards bragged in English Of AN EPOCH-MAKING GAMES IN A LEGENDARY CITY and A MORE OPEN CHINA AWAITS 2000 OLYMPICS.