The man who beat Beijing

ROD McGeoch believes in playing fair. A lawyer for more than 20 years, chairman of one of Sydney's major law firms and a leader in the legal community, he expects decisions to be based on the facts.

So when International Olympic Committee members were deciding who would host the 2000 Olympics and Mr McGeoch - then heading Sydney's successful Olympics bid - believed not all the facts about Beijing were being told, he devised a secret plan to ensure they were.

In particular, he wanted the world to hear more about Beijing's human rights record. So he developed a strategy whereby a public relations company in the UK would, behind the scenes and without apparent links to the non-profit company running the Sydney bid, spread the word about China.

'Beijing and Sydney were immediately the favourites, right from the beginning, and in my view quite rightly so. It has always amazed me that all the other bidders did not understand that, the Istanbuls and the Berlins and the Manchesters.

'I can remember some of the people from Manchester in Monte Carlo saying 48 hours before [the decision], 'why are you worrying about China?', ' says 47-year-old Mr McGeoch, in Hong Kong to address last night's Australia Day dinner.

Now when he makes the speeches he is in demand for these days - 120 last year, for groups as varied as eight chief executives to 2,000 financial counsellors - he stresses the importance of assessing the competition: 'Some of these groups had bid a third time, yet they still could not pick their opponent.' Mr McGeoch and his team could. 'When you are the leader with three years to go, your task is to stay out in front,' he says of the years from April 1991 to 1994 during which he took leave from law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth and suspended all other honorary commitments to become chief executive of Sydney Olympics 2000 Bid Ltd.

'We came to the view after nine months that no matter what we said about ourselves, Beijing just kept ploughing ahead.' At first his team had thought Australia's facilities, the fact that this was its third bid and that it had attended every Olympics would mean its bid would emerge as superior - but that didn't happen.

'We were asking, 'are they swallowing all this like the media and everybody else?'. We thought we would get beaten if we did not do something.' So they - Mr McGeoch and his closest advisers - decided to do something. 'Every day I felt more and more indebted to the support we had in Australia. I thought, 'we have got to break this',' he says. 'We had to devise a strategy that would get a fair comparison out there. It both suited me and philosophically I was comfortable with that comparison being made, Australia versus China.' He was convinced that from hotels to hospitals, public transport to quality of venues, Sydney's bid was better and that it was fair to make the truth about Beijing known.

Yet the decision to lobby against it wasn't taken lightly. After all, in trade and government terms China was one of Australia's closest friends. He was fighting what he says was one of the hardest battles in peace time, with one hand tied behind his back.

But his plan to loosen the strings didn't come off.

Attention began to be drawn to China's human rights record, both in Australian and overseas media. Australia's Olympic officials began asking whether Mr McGeoch and his team were behind that. They weren't - yet. 'Here's me going, 'absolutely not' and at the back of the room about to do something,' he says.

So the bid board was told what he had planned. The result: a resolution that under no circumstances was the anti-Beijing strategy to proceed.

Mr McGeoch spoke vehemently against the decision. There was A$15 million (HK$89 million) in corporate funds backing the bid and if Sydney lost by a few votes, questions would be asked, he told the board. But it wouldn't budge. 'The resolution was quite specific because I think there was a feeling on the board, 'don't give him a loophole'. ' They didn't. When the South China Morning Post interviewed Mr McGeoch in Sydney before the 1993 decision he refused even to comment on Beijing's bid and whether it was the major opponent. These days he's less reticent. Late last year he published a book, BID - How Australia Won the 2000 Games, a personal account of what was, for him, an all-consuming commitment.

The extent of that commitment was revealed in an interview in Sydney shortly before the book's publication: 'I used to see my mother twice a week. I now see her once a month and she lives a mile and a half from me. My oldest friend got terminally ill during the course of the bid, but I just lost contact with him. I lost contact with a lot of people,' he said.

These days he's trying to renew contacts and commitments. He's on the board of the Salvation Army, of an insurance broker and a concrete construction company. Spare time is spent with his wife, Sydney public relations consultant Deeta Colvin, and their teenage children, often at their Hunter Valley winery. When he lands in Sydney tomorrow morning, he'll immediately drive north to join them there.

His own growing interest in the arts, a result of his wife's enthusiasm, has resulted in the chairmanship of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts.

But he is also on the Games organising committee and to Sydney, Rod McGeoch is still Mr Olympics. He chose not to be considered for the organiser's job, fearing speculation about his prospects and criticism of him as a candidate during the bid may destabilise it.

He says he doesn't regret that decision. But one of his two greatest Olympics bid thrills is yet to come - the lighting of the flame on September 15, 2000, in Sydney. And he still loves talking about the bid and the business of winning.

WHEN Sydney won, a Canadian IOC member wrote and told Mr McGeoch he voted for Beijing because the committee had a responsibility to develop the Olympic movement there. Mr McGeoch understands the argument, but says there's also an argument that awarding the Games shouldn't be used as a means of change. Ironically, he now says Beijing should get the Games - but not yet. Before then, there are three conditions Mr McGeoch believes China must fulfil. If it does so, he could even help with its bid.

Those conditions are: Clear signs of change in areas close to his heart - the rule of law, powers of arrest, for instance. 'I understand the difficulties; we have got this Anglo-Saxon rule of law history and they don't, so we can't just say, 'do what we do'. ' But most developed countries have a legal code and China has to show that's where it is heading.

Commitment to Olympism. China can't expect to threaten a boycott over Taiwan, then enjoy universal friendship in the Olympic movement.

Providing strong leadership over drugs - within the rule of law, of course - because this issue is hurting the Olympic movement. 'They [China] I think must have realised that there were some performances that were beyond human ability and I don't think there was enough evidence of rigour in sorting that out,' he says.

Mr McGeoch doesn't agree with Australia's greatest distance runner Ron Clarke who last week said drugs could jeopardise the Sydney Olympics unless the IOC establishes random blitz testing in member countries. But he does feel angry about the issue, about cheating, and believes it is a key one.

But for his organising committee, there's another even more crucial - raising the money to stage the Games. After the Atlanta Games in 1996, Sydney's marketing effort will get into top gear, but the groundwork has begun. So, too, work with hotels to ensure no last minute profiteering, with Aboriginal and other ethnic groups to ensure their involvement.

The year 2000, followed by the anniversary of Australian federation in 2001 will bring a time unlike any other in the country's history, Mr McGeoch believes. So Australia can afford to be generous with its Games, he says.

'I think we need to involve the Asia-Pacific. I'm conscious about the involvement of the South Pacific friends who can never put on a Games themselves. To me we are a trustee of that area for a lot of things, security, aid, and I don't think we should be mean about the Games in any way,' he says.