First came British Prime Minister Tony Blair, mobbed by photographers before a news conference. Next was French President Jacques Chirac, surrounded by French media as he entered a hotel lobby. And then it was Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, button-holed by a horde of Spanish reporters as he strode through a convention center.
The Group of Eight summit?
No, they were here for the site selection of the Olympic Games that are seven years off.
The event has almost taken on the profile of the G-8, the gathering of the leaders of the world's richest countries, opening in Scotland on Wednesday, and which Blair and Chirac were to attend after lobbying International Olympic Committee members. London and Paris are the front-runners in the bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, a high-powered global race for the gold.
To the victor goes the promise of what Blair calls "legacy" and billions of dollars' worth of civic improvements -- new stadiums, mass-transit lines and wheelchair ramps, not to mention the prestige of hosting the Games and the opportunity to showcase one's city for two weeks on television.
Besides the cross-channel rivals, Madrid, Moscow and New York also are battling it out. It's an important contest with a touch of the zany in otherwise buttoned-down Singapore, a city-state famously known for its bans on spitting and on non-therapeutic chewing gum (therapeutic uses include teeth-whiting and the administration of medicines).
Earnestly polite, Singapore has even put out service tips for those dealing with the estimated 5,000 attendees at the 117th IOC session, such as: Avoid discussing controversial topics such as religion or politics, and don't speak Singlish -- that is, English with a Singaporean accent.
But the visiting politicians were at work. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was here to push his city's bid and at a news conference Monday, the Fourth of July, he was accompanied by a human Statue of Liberty.
Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a dapper, chain-smoking politician also aiming for a victory, did push-ups on the carpet of his 66th-floor suite to show reporters how he releases stress (he said he does 60 every morning at 6). The stakes are so high that even hosting the vote to choose the host city spawned competition. Singapore beat Guatemala City, but Guatemala City, it turns out, will host the selection for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Nothing appeared to be left to chance.
Singapore has spent more than $2 million on this event, using about 2,000 armed security personnel -- including Ghurkas who wear forest ranger hats and whose lineage dates from British colonial days -- around the hotel convention center where the voting and frenetic lobbying is taking place.
"This is the hottest contest that the IOC have ever had and I think it unlikely that you will get five cities like this in a race again in the future," said Craig Reedie, an IOC member from London and president of the British Olympic Association.
It was so hot that Bloomberg last week persuaded Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to join New York's bid campaign. She arrived Tuesday morning before dawn, wearing a bright smile after an 18-hour flight from Newark. Even before breakfast, she was whisked away to begin lobbying IOC members.
This is a bit tricky because, according to rules set after the 2000 Salt Lake Games' influence-peddling scandals, advocates for a city cannot invite IOC members to their cities, nor can they visit IOC members in their countries before the vote. But they can always happen to come across one another, in hotel lobbies, restaurants or cafes. And a lot of that was happening this week.
"It's very intense," said Betty King, working on the New York campaign. "We run into people accidentally. We plan to meet people. We use events. We're working the crowd."
Bloomberg worked the lobby of the Raffles Plaza Hotel on Tuesday afternoon, telling IOC member Mohamed Mzali, a former Tunisian prime minister, that he used to have an office in Singapore. Mzali told the mayor, in turn, that he was once invited to New York by former president Richard Nixon, who had an office there. Singapore's multicultural society is "very much like New York's," Bloomberg said, and he invited Mzali to New York, which is perfectly acceptable by IOC rules after Wednesday's vote.
"Even if New York doesn't win, I'll come," Mzali said through an interpreter.
"But that's not a possibility -- New York will win, thank you," Bloomberg replied. Then he made his pitch. "You can help make New York win," he said, smiling at Mzali. "It would be wonderful for New York if we could host the Games. It would be wonderful for the entire state."
Mzali, a genial man in a summer suit, made no promises. And Bloomberg moved on.
Often it was hard to distinguish between the 116 voting members and the rest, because everyone seemed to be twisting someone's arm. An IOC security guard explained the confusion: Voting members tended to hide their laminated passes in their jackets.
Stars were abundant, too. Soccer star David Beckham, wearing a three-piece suit and escorted by his wife, Victoria, attended a reception at the British High Commission. Muhammad Ali, a 1960 Olympic boxing gold medalist, lent his clout to New York's bid, delighting onlookers when he did a little feint-and-jab in a hotel lobby.
But the two men seated in the Swissotel lobby, wearing Union Jack sport coats stitched up for $7 by a Bangkok tailor, were neither celebrities nor London delegation members. They were regular blokes -- British expatriates who said they lived in Singapore, and were plumping for London.
And what would a sports-based competition like this be without politics?
Already-frayed relations between Britain and France over European Constitution issues unraveled even more as Chirac, according to the British and French media, made some derisive remarks about "terrible" British food and Britain's bout with mad cow disease over the weekend.
"The only thing they've ever done for European agriculture is mad cow," he reportedly said of Britain. "You can't trust people who have such lousy cooking . . . after Finland, it's the country with the worst food."
Would such remarks damage the G-8 summit? a reporter queried Blair on Tuesday morning.
"Well, I may be staying in Singapore for the rest of the week now," Blair joked, before adding that "the G-8 is going to focus on really important issues and to be quite honest, I'm not going to disparage anybody."
There was also an intrusion of more ominous politics. A Chechen warlord whose group is waging a separatist war against Russia warned on a Web site Tuesday that he could not guarantee the safety of athletes if Moscow was the choice.
Singapore closed the opening ceremony Tuesday night with a spectacular fireworks display that lit the waterfront. It also named an orchid after the occasion: the Vanda IOC.
Blair left Tuesday night for Scotland. Chirac will take part in the Paris presentation of its bid to the IOC on Wednesday morning, then fly to Scotland.
Neither man would be in Singapore for the vote. But the backers of Madrid, Moscow and New York were hoping that wouldn't even matter.