China is goning overboard to snare Olympic Games No effort spared to influence IOC vote

September 15, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- When the International Olympic Committee meets in Monte Carlo to decide on the venue for the 2000 Olympics, Sydney, Australia's superior climate and facilities will make it the front-runner.

But when the vote is over Sept. 23, don't be surprised if Beijing walks away with the Games.

For China, the IOC vote is a high-stakes political test in which its preparations have gone far beyond the typical excesses of bidders for the Olympics.

China has pursued the Olympics with a keen appreciation for the IOC's internal politics, a willingness to use its political prisoners as diplomatic hostages and a full-tilt public relations campaign that at times has been embarrassing to watch.

Chinese officials have called the IOC a "god," promising that the committee's slightest wish will be their command.

They've suggested IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch ought to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, reportedly his deepest desire.

They've lent the IOC's new museum a priceless relic: a 2,000-year-old, terra-cotta soldier from the tomb of China's first emperor. And they've wined and dined in Beijing more than two-thirds of the 90 voting members of the IOC, a body widely rumored to be susceptible to under-the-table inducement.

Given the extent of these frenzied efforts, failure could turn into an embarrassment for the Chinese government -- especially at home, where the masses have been roped into displays of support for the Games. But the risk is apparently worth it.

China is seeking affirmation of its diplomatic recovery from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators and of its aspiration to become a world economic and political power in the next century.

Consequently, China's biggest obstacle to nabbing the Games is its human rights abuses. The U.S. Congress and international human rights groups have told the IOC it shouldn't reward such a repressive regime with the honor of holding the Olympics.

China this year has tried to mute this criticism with the carefully timed releases of some dissidents and clerics from jail. The most recent example is yesterday's release of China's most famous ++ political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng, who was paroled from jail six months before the end of his 15-year jail term.

But even the Olympics has not induced the Chinese regime to alter its fundamental opposition to any dissent, as evidenced by the recent expulsion of a labor leader, Han Dongfang.

Instead, Chinese officials have tried to cast their critics as injecting unwholesome politics into the pure sports world of the Olympics.

At the same time, there have been no better students of the IOC's geopolitics than Chinese officials. And they are banking on a split within the committee's membership -- between the developing and developed worlds -- to bring the Games to Beijing.

The Olympics would seem to be a pet of the developed world. They almost always have been held in developed nations, and they are the source of vital television and advertising income.

But half the IOC's membership comes from developing nations such as China.

Beijing -- long the self-proclaimed leader of the developing world is doing its utmost to exploit this to its political advantage against the other bidders: Sydney; Istanbul, Turkey; Berlin; and Manchester, England.

"We're emphasizing developing countries," says Wei Jizhong, secretary-general of Beijing's bid committee. "We're emphasizing the universality of the Games: Every country should have the right to participate. If Beijing is awarded the Games, it will bring the Olympics to 22 percent of the world's population for the first time."

This logic -- plus a desire to curry China's favor -- already has won over the majority of Asian IOC representatives. It likely will sway many from Africa, where China has built 26 sports stadiums since the 1960s, and South America, where Brasilia recently dropped out of the bidding.

These three regions account for 47 of the IOC's 90 votes, enough by themselves to give Beijing the Games, according to Mr. Wei.

But the voting won't be quite that simple, in part because the IOC keeps voting -- and eliminating the bidder with the fewest votes in each round of voting -- until one city obtains a clear majority.

China will receive at least 20 votes in the first round of voting, Mr. Wei predicts. It will gain more if Istanbul is eliminated. It also could pick up a large block of votes if South Americans unite against Sydney, on the theory that holding the 2000 Games in the Southern Hemisphere might hurt South America's chances to play host in 2004.

"The politics will go on until the last round," Mr. Wei says, "and we're preparing to win the last round."

Chinese officials also have shown at least a few signs of preparations in the event their bid fails.

Efforts to drum up mass support for the Games have been less apparent here in recent weeks. China, unlike Australia and Britain, is not planning to send its head of government to Monaco.

And Beijingers -- some of whom aren't afraid to say that better housing and education ought to come before the Olympics -- seem to be cushioning themselves for the possibility of international rejection.

"If Sydney gets the bid, so what?" says Wen Yiren, a 30-year-old cab driver. "I mean, the foreigners are rich. They have so much more money. . . . A national embarrassment? I don't think so."

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