Why Beijing Is Still the Olympic Front Runner

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Hometown display: The logo for Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics

Eenie meanie miney mo… The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced Tuesday that there is little to choose between the three front-runners to host the 2008 Summer Games — Beijing, Paris and Toronto. And while there may be a number of legislators on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill who'd love to use the issue stick it to Beijing in the wake of the Hainan spy-plane standoff, the Bush administration is unlikely to try and stop China landing the games.

The latest IOC report is essentially a technical assessment of each city's readiness to mount an Olympic-scale spectacle — Istanbul and Osaka fared badly on this score, making them rank outsiders — ahead of a July vote by IOC members to award the games. Although political considerations are not supposed to weigh directly in IOC deliberations, delegates won't be unaware of the political implications of their choice. Beijing has made hosting the Olympiad a diplomatic priority, particularly after it lost to Sydney in the bid for 2000. And that vote reveals the complex politics of the voting process, in which each round eliminates the city with the least number of votes. Beijing won the three-way vote against Sydney and Manchester, but when the British city fell away Sydney inherited enough of its supporters to put it over the top.

While a number of U.S. legislators have urged that Beijing be denied the Games on human-rights grounds, they're unlikely to win much support either from the majority of IOC delegates or even from the Bush administration. Although the administration has not yet taken any position on the issue, it is believed to see a move to deny Beijing the Games as a symbolic move that would alienate China's population without achieving much tangible benefit.

And even if the Bush administration wanted to stop the Games going to Beijing, it would struggle to prevail in the IOC on the basis of a directly political agenda. The Olympic movement suffered heavily from the tit-for-tat boycotts of 1980 and 1984, when the U.S. and the Soviets refused to attend each other's Olympiads, and delegates may be leery of allowing geopolitical conflict to determine the movement's agenda. And direct criticism of China on human rights grounds tends to be confined to Western nations. Taking the recent defeat of the U.S. in an election for the U.N. Human Rights Commission as an indicator, it would be safe to say that an attempt by Washington to campaign against a Beijing Olympiad could easily end in an embarrassing failure.

And then there's the countervailing view, which holds that awarding the Games to Beijing would actually force it to be on best behavior for the next seven years — some in Washington argue that the Chinese leadership would be restrained from risking a Tiananmen Square-type crackdown if their prized Olympiad was at stake. So, with most observers holding Beijing as the slight favorite over Paris and Toronto, the China-bashers, human rights advocates, Tibetan independence campaigners and others who hope to stop the IOC awarding it the games are probably not going to prevail. But in the (likely) event their efforts to stop China getting the Games are defeated, the opportunities to promote their causes afforded by a Beijing Olympiad may yet turn such a defeat into a blessing.