Inside the gleaming glass elevators of a five-star hotel near Red Square, in its swank, dimly lit lobby teeming with security guards, and in its smoke-filled, bustling restaurants and cafes, members of the International Olympic Committee have congregated during the last week, in small groups and large. No matter where or when they meet, members say, their conversations nearly always return to this week's burning question, an issue that has divided the U.S. Congress, incited protesters, stirred the European Union Parliament and provoked threats of bodily harm.
Should the 122-member IOC award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing? Opponents say sending the Games to China would bring honor to the nation's Communist regime while ignoring its human rights record. But Beijing Olympic officials, who gave a news conference today, counter by saying it would put the government on its best behavior and uplift the country.
Finally, after months of internal reflection, weeks of international debate and days of animated conversations, IOC members will decide during Friday's secret-ballot vote whether Beijing -- considered the favorite over Toronto, Paris, Istanbul and Osaka, Japan -- will be the first Chinese city to host a Games. One IOC member, speculating that Beijing had snared the support of more than half of the members, predicted the Chinese capital would win the Games on the first ballot (the voting process eliminates the city with the least votes in each round until one city wins a majority).
"All of the members know about the political implications. This is what all the internal discussion has been about," IOC member Thomas Bach of Germany said. "The question is, 'How do you help improve the situation in China?' By saying no? Or by saying yes?"
Because of restrictions enacted after the 1999 Salt Lake City scandal, members were not permitted to visit the bid cities. Based on an internal commission's lengthy evaluations of each city, they were asked to choose their favorites. The commission rated excellent the bids of Beijing, Toronto and Paris, and cited problems with those of Istanbul and Osaka. The issue, however, has never been just about venues, infrastructure and traffic.
Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said Toronto possessed the best bid technically, with its heavy involvement from athletes, planned waterfront sports complex on the banks of Lake Ontario, and ethnic and racial diversity. But even Pound admits that the decision isn't between bidders; it's between points of view. U.S. IOC member Anita DeFrantz says she has consulted reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on all of the cities. For an organization that prides itself on the separation of sport and politics, the question has become almost entirely political.
"The decision is, 'Are you prepared to consider Beijing as a viable Olympic Games candidate?' " Pound said. "If it's no, it's no. If it's yes, then it goes into the pool."
Bid cities will get their only chance to argue their case in front of the IOC membership shortly before Friday's vote. In what was something of a mock rehearsal, each city gave a news conference today, trying to sell its candidacy with big-name athletes, colorful banners and a variety of catchy slogans. Chinese officials took questions on human rights, the death penalty and government oppression. They joked with reporters and complimented them on their queries.
"The human rights conditions in China have been improving in the last 15 years," said Wang Wei, the secretary general of the bid committee. "We are confident that, with the Games coming to China, not only are they going to promote the economy, but also enhance all the social sectors, including education, medical care and human rights."
Asked by the IOC to avoid mudslinging this week, Toronto and Paris officials declined to criticize China on the basis of politics. In the past, meetings between the cities have been less than cordial. During one such meeting, a Chinese bid official, angry about a Parisian official's derogatory remarks about China's air quality, cited the problem of dogs defecating all over Paris. That, he said, does not happen in China. The Paris official said in response, according to the IOC member who asked to remain anonymous, "We all know why that is."
Today, Paris bid official Jean-Paul Huchon resisted the urge to chide any country, saying: "We consider our bid . . . in line with what is right with regard to human rights. This question cannot be out of the minds of those who go to take the final decision." Paris officials extolled the opportunity to put beach volleyball matches in the park below the Eiffel Tower, send marathoners around the city's monuments, and send Olympic cyclists down the Champs-Elysees.
Toronto bid leaders were accompanied on stage by a diverse group of Olympians -- two black, and one a fluent French speaker. Toronto hopes to steal the election from China by proving that it has the perfect bid, and drawing support from the 15 current athletes who are members of the IOC and the more than 70 former Olympic athletes.
"I'm here in Moscow with 24 of my fellow athletes," said Canadian rower Marnie McBean, a three-time gold medalist. "This is truly the first athlete-driven bid. From the beginning, the athletes were approached."
Toronto officials hope to have skirted the controversy created by a racial slur uttered in the spring by Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman, who met with IOC ethics commission head Keba Mbaye and other IOC officials recently to apologize. Mbaye, who is from Senegal, said he has put the issue out of his mind.
"I think he was very sincere in his apology," Mbaye said. "In my country, if you make an apology, you are forgiven. I have talked to the other members from Africa, because I am the doyen. I hope they will also forgive."
Their forgiveness may not be sufficient to upset Beijing.
"The core of it is," Bach said, "Beijing is a strong candidate."