Beijing's quest for the glittering prize
MR HE Zhenliang, the eloquent president of China's Olympic Committee, likens the race for the honour of hosting the 2000 Olympiad to a 100 metres sprint.
''Everybody stays in their own lane until the finish line and then everyone congratulates the winner. It is not a boxing match,'' he said, doing a little Muhammad Ali shuffle in his armchair to demonstrate the point.
Mr He's colourful sporting metaphors are meant to signify China's aim to keep the fight a clean one, without mud-slinging or underhand tactics.
''We will never say anything bad about our competitors, to do so would be against the Olympic spirit,'' he said.
''Even if we are criticised by the other cities, we will continue to uphold the noble aims of the Olympics, friendship, understanding and peace.'' Many observers feel, however, a slug-out is what it will become as the fight goes to the wire when, on September 23, the International Olympic Committee meets in Monte Carlo to decide which city will win sport's greatest prize.
What price the Olympic Games in China in the year 2000, complete with its political and international ramifications? In London, bookmakers are laying odds of 6-4. Sydney may be 4-5 odds-on favourite, but as anyone who knows Olympic politicking will tell you, this is one area in which even the legendary intuition of the bookmakers can turn princes into paupers.
Nothing is certain, but within the IOC there seems to have been no discernible change in opinion that the two are well ahead of the chasing pack. Manchester, Milan, Istanbul, Brasilia and Berlin are the other contenders.
Even the spectre of a less than amicable handover of Hongkong in 1997 is likely to prove little more than an irritant to Beijing's prospects.
Neither is the Tiananmen Square bloodshed said to be a hindrance, despite worldwide condemnation of the IOC for even considering Beijing as host.
As Mr He, who is also first vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), freely admitted, since China rejoined the Olympics in 1984, everything has been aimed at hosting the Games in the year 2000.
The 1990 Asian Games, while prestigious enough, were for Beijing one of the necessary preparatory steps to be taken in its long-term Olympic bid.
The successful, but not entirely unblemished Asian Games gave the city many of the facilities required for the Olympics. A new 100,000-capacity stadium will be built as the showpiece for 2000, along with an indoor arena, velodrome, swimming pool and equestrian park.
To make sure its efforts do not go to waste, Beijing will embark on a massive lobbying campaign this year, sending delegations to all major international sporting events where IOC officials will be present and inviting IOC members to visit China to see conditions for themselves.
Chinese officials will be seen at the Southeast Asian Games in Singapore, the World Track and Field Championships in Stuttgart, even the Mediterranean Games, to be held in June.
But one of the most controversial aspects of China's bid has been the lobbying of Third World, particularly, African, IOC members. Trade delegations are said to have been sent to Africa specifically for the purpose of wooing IOC members, but what is disconcerting to some members is that the Chinese are exerting considerable diplomatic pressure to call in old favours.
China has been a strong force in African sport, having provided the funding for the construction of more than 20 stadia there in recent years. It is understood the Chinese now want a return for that investment, as well as for other tangible and larger trade investments and that if guarantees are not forthcoming they may hit certain trade links.
Africa, with 46 national Olympic committees, has 14 IOC members who have steadily become one of the influential voting blocks - a factor Sydney does not underestimate. Sydney recently offered to pay the air fares of all African participants as well as co-ordinating their travel arrangements.
But by far the most important event in China's Olympic calendar this year will be the East Asian Games in Shanghai in May. The games will be attended by IOC President Mr Juan Antonio Samaranch and 23 other members of the committee and will give China a rare opportunity to showcase its organisational talents months before the IOC decides on a venue for 27th Olympiad.
China considers the East Asian Games to be its secret weapon in its bid for the Olympics and already the people of Shanghai are being urged to pull out all stops to ensure the games are a success.
Shanghai newspapers and the television station have features on preparations for the games virtually every day and the city is full of giant plastic chickens performing the dual role of ushering in the new year and welcoming the East Asian Games.
Following the games, Mr Samaranch and several other IOC members are expected to visit Beijing to inspect the city's facilities and the work in progress. Beijing is in the middle of a major infrastructure development project, involving a fourth ring road,upgrading the second and third ring roads, building a new railway station, laying new gas and hot water pipelines, and substantially expanding the city's telecommunications network.
When all this work is completed, well before the year 2000, officials say Beijing will be a far more efficient, less congested city than it is today.
Residents are suffering immense disruption to their daily lives in the interim as the construction teams move in.
Even Mr Samaranch will be inconvenienced. The new airport road will only be half finished when he arrives, forcing the IOC president to traverse a minor building site before joining the old two-lane country road which serves as the only access route to the airport. Chinese officials will have to hope Mr Samaranch has a vision of Beijing's future as equally farsighted as their own.
''The Chinese don't want to lose,'' said an IOC member familiar with the machinations of Asian-Pacific politics. ''They have put on a real political play. There is even a special group pressure on. I think technically they're ready, and that they can deliver.
''Human rights is an issue that's raised. And some of the English-speaking nations might be pre-occupied with what's happening in Hongkong, but I think it will be a factor with only a small number of people. I have my worries but I think that they will win.'' The Chinese people appear to be joining in the effort. Thousands of unsolicited donations have been pouring in every day to the Beijing bid committee's offices in the Asian Games Village in the north of the city.
Mr He predicted Beijing would be able to earn about US$1.1 billion (HK$8.6 billion) from advertising and sponsorship, as well as television rights.
Should the Games fail to bring in that amount or building costs go way over budget, he said the government would step in to cover the excess.
Also in Beijing's favour are the commercial possibilities likely to emanate from the gradual opening of a market of more than a billion people. Sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Kodak are licking their lips.
''Can you imagine getting the shoe lace contract for China?'' said a leading Olympic official last year.
''It could do for China what the Olympic Movement did for Seoul in 1988. It is an attractive player for anybody commercially. If you are an American company it is a wonderful platform. With seven years to run it would be helpful to sponsors.'' Yet for the IOC the choice of venue is as intriguing as it is critical. The Games of the millennium will have unique significance for the Olympic Movement and particularly for the IOC as it seeks to enhance what it perceives to be its growing role in theworld of international diplomacy, where it clearly vies with the United Nations as a role model for world peace.
Staging a unique sporting showpiece is, of course, vitally important, but this is as much about politics as sport, and the jousting with the UN last summer over the matter of Yugoslav athletes' participation at the Olympic Games in Barcelona has only reinforced the belief of Mr Samaranch that the IOC is a formidable force in precipitating social and political change worldwide.
Political uncertainty is causing concern among some IOC members, who privately believe Tiananmen Square is not in the past and that awarding the Games to China will undermine the IOC's credibility.
''There is so much change taking place in world politics today and there is an absence of the traditional balance we had during the Cold War,'' said IOC vice-president Mr Kevan Gosper, of Australia. ''We rely on political stability.'' Will China provide that guarantee? Neither can the talk about Mr Samaranch being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize be easily dismissed. The IOC's elevated regard for its own global status is such that some within its ranks are likely to concoct an equation that will have the Olympic Games in Beijing being a prospective force for change in China. The effect the 1988 Olympic Games had on South Korea is frequently cited as an example of that power.
It is said, for instance, that Mr Samaranch and three IOC executive board members - ''the major players'', according to an informed source - all favour Beijing. Bluff or double bluff? ''Sydney has some neutral attractions to offer and when you compare the two, China can be viewed as having some uncertain ties. Sydney is more of a steady target. But giving the Games to Beijing could be a big contribution to bringing the country into contact with many parts of the world,'' said an IOC insider.