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.
On Sept. 4, the first night of China's seventh national sports festival, a suitably grandiose Olympic-style opening ceremony was held in 80,000-seat Beijing Workers Stadium. The festival featured a huge neon BEIJING 2000 backdrop and a two-hour Busby Berkeley-like spectacle that included 10,195 performers and a torch-lighting act in which the igniting flame roared up through the bodies of two 100-foot dragons.
Polls put public support of the Games among Beijing's citizens at 98.7%. In two or three dozen man-in-the-street interviews, there was unrelieved enthusiasm. However, no one was quite as committed to the Games as Henry Fok and Li Xiaohua. Fok, a Hong Kong real estate developer, wants to be remembered in the nation of his birth and has offered to pay for the building of a $300 million Olympic stadium if it is named after him. Li is a real estate developer who has prospered during China's economic reforms, which amount to a switch from strict communism to relatively free enterprise capitalism. Li describes himself as a "former pauper" and says he made his first fortune as a Formula 101 hair-tonic distributor and attained folk-hero status by becoming the first man to import a Ferrari into China. "The Games will spur the economy, and they will raise the national spirit," says Li. He is also willing to put his money where his mouth is: Not only has he pledged $1 million to the organizing committee if Beijing gets the bid, but he also promised to donate his famous $135,000 red Ferrari as first prize in the Beijing 2000 Olympic lottery designed to raise money for the Games.
Though private contributors are encouraged—and sometimes coerced—to support big sports events, the government has issued a no-strings guarantee to pay the entire $3.4 billion needed to upgrade telecommunications in Beijing, as well as $7 billion to pay for infrastructure improvements needed for the Olympics. This is why the IOC prefers authoritarianism over democracy when it comes to financing the Games.
Another factor that might tempt some delegates to pick Beijing is the under-exploited Chinese consumer market. Because China has 1.2 billion people, consumer sales for any non-Chinese company with the Olympic rings on its product could be astronomical. This, in turn, would mean that the IOC could collect comparably astronomical fees from sponsoring corporations. As Jaime FlorCruz, TIME'S Beijing bureau chief, says, "Brand names connected with the Olympics will be as popular in China as if they've been carved in stone on the Great Wall. I can't imagine that Coca-Cola or Mars candy would get any remotely similar impact out of having the Games in Sydney."
A final consideration in handicapping Beijing's bid is the issue of human rights violations in China. The most infamous of them all occurred in the first week of June 1989, when army troops slaughtered hundreds of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in Beijing following a period of liberalization. There have been many other recent violations of rights, including torture, slave labor and prison sentences or exile for dissidents.
Angered by China's cold refusal to case its repressive rule, the U.S. House of Representatives this summer passed a resolution urging the IOC to reject Beijing's bid for the Olympics. Sixty of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate then signed a letter sent to all members of the IOC expressing similar sentiments. The Clinton Administration didn't formally declare its opposition to Beijing, but Wendy Sherman, an assistant secretary of state, said pointedly in a letter to Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "The administration strongly believes that a country's human rights performance should be an important factor in the selection of a site for the 2000 Olympics."
Of course, finding the precise definition of what makes a serious violation of human rights can turn into an endless argument. As Rodda puts it: "To a lesser degree every candidate city has a human rights problem: Sydney with Aborigines, Istanbul with Kurds, Berlin with Turkish immigrants, Manchester with Northern Ireland." Given that, the Chinese were predictably outraged at Congress's attempt to scuttle their bid. Chen Yunpeng, China's swimming coach in the last three Olympics, says, "This is politics, and politics brought us the U.S. boycott in 1980 and the Soviet Union's revenge boycott in 1984. When human rights are discussed, maybe it is possible that we in China have seen the Los Angeles riots as growing out of a serious rights violation, and maybe we in China will suddenly declare that the L.A. riots seem so serious a violation that we will boycott Atlanta in 1996. Now what would the U.S. Congress say about that?"
The matter of human rights is not something the IOC members will officially consider. The subject is considered political and, thus, is officially out of bounds. As Berlioux says: "The rights situation doesn't disturb them [IOC members] a wee bit. After all, where in this world are you sure to have human rights respected anyway?" Ironically, instead of undermining the Beijing bid, the protests of U.S. politicians may actually have helped the Chinese. KarlHeinz Huba, publisher of a Munich sports periodical with close links to the IOC, says, "I am afraid Beijing will win because of the objection raised in the U.S. IOC members don't like such interference."
So does Beijing have it wrapped up? Who knows? There is no sign of surrender from Oceania. Sydney's bidders are convinced that the U.S. rights protests have badly hurt the Beijing effort, and an Australian official says, "We're still regarded as favorites, and we're hoping that's the way it finishes." At the same time, however, word came from Centre-bet, a bookmaking firm in the Australian outback: A flood of money is pouring in for Beijing to win at 4-to-5 odds.