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Thursday, September 08, 2005


London for 2012? It’s All About the IOC, Not the City!

London’s victory over Paris in the contest to host the 2012 Olympic Games has been greeted by many as a sign that the British capital can now claim to be somehow more worldly and cosmopolitan than the French one, and thus a more appropriate venue for an international event such as the Olympics. This is a novel interpretation that ignores the reality that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that chooses the host city is a closed club of very status-conscious and politically minded personalities.

When the IOC chose Athens over Rome as the host of the 2004 summer Olympics, no one spoke in terms of the Parthenon beating the Colosseum. And the IOC’s choice of Sydney as the host of the 2000 games did not elicit favorable comparison of Australia’s capital to its competitor candidates, Beijing and Berlin. And when Greece’s Melina Mercouri said that Coca-Cola had beaten the Parthenon when Atlanta was chosen over Athens for the 1996 games, she was not suggesting that Atlanta’s skyline was superior.

There was, from the start, a strong element of which-is-the-best-city-in-the-world? in the contest over the 2012 games. Aside from Paris and London, the other final candidate-cities were New York, Madrid, and Moscow. Put differently, the largest city of the current global empire was running against the capitals of four former global empires. There has never been such an impressive array of candidate-cities in the history of the Olympics. No wonder there was a sense that the selection was a referendum on which was the fairest of them all.

Paris was always the favorite, but in the runup to the IOC’s selection session, held in Singapore in early July, London had begun to catch up. With the other three cities having relatively weaker bids, the selection was shaping up as a contest between Paris and London. With Britain and France sharply divided over the past months over the war in Iraq and issues relating to the European Union, the 2012 decision seemed yet another round in the Anglo-French rivalry.

Britain’s celebration of the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar only days before the IOC met in Singapore served as a reminder of the deep historical antecedents to this Anglo-French matchup. Nelson’s victory in 1805 over a French and Spanish fleet shaped the course of world history. Britain marked the event with a reenactment of the famous battle, as 17 tall ships and mock fusillades of gunfire and cannon blasts, with real fireworks and an actor impersonating Admiral Nelson, all performed in the presence of Queen Elizabeth. The decision to hold the mock battle between a red and blue fleet rather than Britain and France was an empty gesture that could not disguise the sentiments of the organizers.

In Singapore, the IOC’s voting patterns on the big day confirmed that this was another Battle of Trafalgar. Moscow received the least number of votes in the first round and was eliminated, followed by New York, which went out in the second round, leaving London, Madrid, and Paris. The third-round tally gave London a narrow lead over Paris, 39 to 33, with Madrid dropping out after garnering a respectable 31 votes. It was a close call for Paris. But would enough of those 31 votes for Madrid switch over to the French capital in the final round to give the favorite its victory, after all? The answer was no. London received 54 votes to Paris’s 50, winning the right to host the 2012 games in one of the closest-ever contests to select a host city.

With the weight of recent and more distant history heavy on their shoulders, several commentators rushed to interpret the result in terms of precisely that: another round in the longstanding Anglo-French struggle for supremacy. They saw the decision as reflecting the English language’s overshadowing of French on a global scale and also as a commentary on London’s recent transformation into a cosmopolitan city. The hegemony of English is beyond dispute, but it did not help New York’s bid, or earlier bids by other British, Canadian, and US cities. As for London becoming a cosmopolitan city, that is a relative assessment, but it is fondly endorsed by all those who lived or spent time in the Anglocentric cultural wasteland that was London in the 1970s. One could not get a decent coffee, let alone sit outside, and Indian and Italian cuisines were exotic alternatives to steak and kidney pie or fish and chips, at least for those on a moderate budget.

In the past couple of decades, London has, indeed, undergone a remarkable transformation: a broad variety of ethnic cuisines and open-air cafés flourish, while, for those still interested, pubs continue to abound. Meanwhile, about 300 languages are now spoken by the denizens of Britain’s capital. Still, to regard London’s change as somehow diminishing Paris’s considerable cultural capital and allure is a non sequitur.

When dealing with the International Olympic Committee, “people and politics” are more reliable for understanding policy decisions than language or issues of cosmopolitanism. Yes, the IOC is an international body and the games are universal, but precisely because of that, they do not need the cosmopolitan imprimatur of any host city; otherwise, the games would not have gone to Atlanta in 1996, for example. Instead, each decision to award the games is made on the basis of which particular city will serve the Olympic movement, and that decision is usually made on the basis of the merits of the campaigns launched by the representatives of each candidate-city.

Indeed, the lessons learned by Athens in its bids for the 1996 and 2004 games are useful in understanding London’s victory. Athens was the favorite in the runup to selecting the host for the 1996 centenary games, but underdog Atlanta’s persistent and extraordinarily efficient campaign paid off at the last minute. A great deal of the credit for that success was due to real estate lawyer Billy Payne, whose business savvy and deft public relations won over many IOC members. Not surprisingly, given the character of Olympic bidding, ethical corners were cut. Three years after the Atlanta games, CNN reported that the bidding committee had compiled detailed dossiers on members of the International Olympic Committee and had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on gifts, first-class vacations, and lavish hospitality.

Athens learned its lessons during the 1996 bid and launched a completely different campaign for the 2004 games. The bid leader, Gianna Angelopoulou-Daskalakê, was exceptionally qualified to court an international audience and present a businesslike and details-oriented proposal, putting aside the unctuous invocations of Olympic history that had ultimately short-circuited the Greek bid for the 1996 games. By that time, and in the wake of the bribery scandal connected with its award of the 2002 winter Olympics to Salt Lake City, the IOC had cleaned up its ethics stables so that the onus on the Greeks was to be even more careful and efficient in garnering support among the committee’s members. Angelopoulou achieved this magnificently.

The little information that exists at the moment on the bidding war between London and Paris indicates that while the French sat back assuming that they had already won—as the Greeks had done in bidding for the 1996 games—the British team heeded Angelopoulou’s example and launched an energetic public-relations campaign coupled with a technically proficient set of presentations. Although a great deal has been written about the respective bid teams, people forget that what counts most in the closed club that is the IOC are the dynamics among members. Privately, “neutral” IOC members confirm that their French colleagues distinguished themselves by their aloofness. At IOC meetings, they took some of their meals in their hotel rooms rather than mingle with their colleagues, and French IOC member and former ski champion Jean-Claude Killy is known for his imperious behavior.

In contrast, the British IOC members were much more driven and Angelopoulou-like in courting their colleagues. Craig Reedie, a Scottish badminton player turned sports administrator who joined the IOC in 1994, is apparently the unsung hero of London’s bid. He was lobbying on its behalf right up to a few moments before the final vote. Britain’s sports minister told The Guardian that, “There is no doubt that he had an influence….He has great connections within the IOC and is incredibly well respected. He…[was] one of the main players in the bid.” The newspaper commented that it was clear how influential he had been from the way his IOC colleagues congratulated him in the days following the vote. Among those who paid tribute to his important role was Sepp Blatter, the international soccer federation president and IOC member, who was reported as saying, “It was a great victory for London and Craig Reedie, he helped convince the IOC members how fabulous an Olympic Games in London could be.”

Another influential participant behind the scenes was British IOC member Philip Craven, another former athlete turned sports administrator. He combines the unassuming friendliness of his native Bolton in Lancashire in the English north with another important asset, a French wife, Jocelyne—as well as a fluent command of French. In contrast, Henri Sérandour, head of the French Olympic committee, speaks only French, according to his biographical note on the IOC website.

Bearing in mind that the IOC was led until recently by Juan Antonio Samaranch, who refused to visit any country that would not receive him with full head-of-state honors, the egos of individual members should not be discounted in understanding their votes. London’s bid leader, former Olympian Sebastian Coe, was attuned to the need to appear approachable, but, naturally, since this is the IOC, it was the respective political leaders who made the difference. Tony Blair knew what he was doing when he pampered IOC members with private, 15-minute sessions of tea and biscuits on the eve of the vote in Singapore. Jacques Chirac, another imperious Frenchman, barely made it to Singapore, while the official announcement of his arrival included the striking faux pas that he was traveling despite his overburdened schedule.

In the end, it looks like Paris’s failure was not the city’s lack of international stature but a lack of international as well as political savvy among its main advocates. It was also due to the British, whom Napoleon once described as a nation of shopkeepers, being able to sell London’s bid more effectively to the IOC. Word from Paris is that the city will not be bidding again soon for the Olympics after three failed attempts over the past few decades. One thing is certain, however: Paris will still be “Paris,” with or without the Olympics.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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