How London surprised Paris to win the 2012 Olympics

Whitehall and Westminster World

A WEEK before the International Olympic Committee met in Singapore in July to vote on which city should host the 2012 Olympics, I spoke to a Swiss insider who had correctly predicted the last four winning bids for the Olympics. He told me Paris would beat London by 20 votes.

London may be winning the PR battle, he said, but when it comes to voting behind the closed doors of the IOC session Paris would win the war. Paris was bidding for the third time in 20 years, London had never bid before, the IOC would flirt with London but pledge itself to Paris.

Later that day I rang a member of the IOC who is European and whose opinion I respect. He is also one who had been marked down by my Swiss expert as voting for Paris. He told me news that was remarkable. He said that Tony Blair had written a personal letter to him saying that he was going to be in Singapore and would like to meet him for a one-to-one chat in his hotel room.

Now this member was no stranger to being courted by the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the world. In the contest for 2012 Olympics he had received letters from President Putin urging a vote for Moscow, the King of Spain for Madrid and President Chirac for Paris. But Blair asking for a personal meeting was different. He was also impressed by the fact that Cherie Blair would be in Singapore meeting wives of IOC members. All this had made him think that London now stood a real chance of winning.

The London team arrived in Singapore aware that while they were still behind Paris, if Blair could talk to IOC members it could swing the vote in London’s favour.It must be said that the London team had hit upon this strategy as a way out of a very difficult problem. Normally political leaders do not campaign personally at such sports meeting. If they attend it is at the formal presentation just before the vote to give reassurance that the government is behind the bid. Mrs Thatcher did not even want to do that and refused to be part of the presentation when Manchester bid, sending Chris Patten instead.

But while Blair was keen to be part of the Singapore presentation the vote in Singapore on Wednesday July 6 was on the same day as the start of G8 in Gleneagles. With London drawn to make the presentation in late afternoon, Blair could not be at the presentation and get back to greet world leaders in Gleneagles.

In contrast Paris was presenting first and with the time difference between Singapore and Britain, Chirac could be part of the presentation team and still get to Gleneagles in time.

However London turned this to its advantage by making Blair the centrepiece of their final push. So while Blair could not be at the presentation, he could spend more time in Singapore than Chirac or any of the other leaders.

He would fly in on the Sunday afternoon and stay there until Tuesday night meeting as many IOC members as he possibly could. Also he would make himself appear accessible by staying not with the British High Commissioner but in the same convention complex as the IOC members.

Behind this strategy lay the realisation that there was an enormous gap between Blair’s standing in this country and his standing abroad. The London team knew from their soundings in the IOC that while in this country any discussion about Blair raises the question of trust over Iraq, IOC members did not associate Iraq with Blair. It was seen more as Bush’s war. In IOC circles he was seen as the prime minister of a country with the fourth-largest economy in the world and a man who had won three elections on the trot.

So while Paris used Chirac conventionally, he flew in the night before the vote — stayed with the French ambassador, spoke at the presentation and then flew away speaking to no member individually — London used Blair was if he was standing for election in Singapore. The London tactics worked like a dream.

In the days leading up to the vote I spoke to IOC members as they came out of their one-to-one meetings with Blair. They spoke highly of the prime minister and the London bid and I began to detect that London was gaining momentum.

After the vote Richard Pound, the IOC member from Canada, and one of the best brains of the Olympic movement, told me, “Make no mistake Tony Blair won this bid for London. Paris came to Singapore ahead but losing momentum. Blair made sure that they lost.”

But if Blair was the decisive factor, then the stage had been set for Blair by the way London restructured their bid just over a year ago. At that stage in the summer of 2004 it looked as if London stood no chance. Following a preliminary assessment made by the IOC London was ranked third behind Paris and Madrid with harsh comments about its transport. The next day the then London bid leader, the American born Barbara Cassani, resigned and her deputy Lord Coe took over.

Not many people gave Coe much of a chance. But during the bidding year he found himself. He also found his Indian roots. Coe’s mother, who died a few months before the vote, was half Indian. Before he became bid leader Coe had never much mentioned his Indian roots and never visited India. Now, campaigning for London, he visited India for the first time and helped Delhi get the Commonwealth Games, the first time it had gone to the commonwealth’s most populous country and only the third time to a non-white commonwealth country. This showed that when London spoke of the commonwealth it was not just the old white commonwealth.

It also helped undercut an advantage Paris had. The French had always used their old colonies to spread their message in the non-white world. In Coe, London more than matched the French.

London also used race by reaching out to the third world imaginatively. Although like all the other bids all the main people in the London bid were white, London decided to make the black kids of the world their great selling point.

Its presentation focused on how the Olympics can turn kids away from crime to sport, beginning with a shot of kids from an African township. Also prominent in the Singapore presentation were young black kids from east London where the Games are to be held. The message of Coe’s emotional speech was: “Give us the Games and we will reach out to the world.”

The general wisdom is that a presentation does not win votes but it can lose them. However, when I spoke to an IOC member from Denmark after the vote, he was convinced that presentation had helped London edge out Paris by four votes. He said, “I saw something I never thought possible. The French behaved like the British and the British like the French. Paris showed no passion, but the British, far from being buttoned up, showed passion and flair and that is why they won.”

The French presentation had featured Catherine Deneuve. She looked radiant but compared to Coe’s carefully charged political message and three days of glad handling from Blair not all the beauty of Catherine Deneuve could rescue the French.

© Mihir Bose


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