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The International Olympic Committee is scheduled to select the host city for the 2008 Summer Olympics at a Moscow general meeting in July, according to the IOC rule that says selection should be made seven years before the summer or winter games are held. To collect the necessary data, the committee is sending a fact-finding mission to five cities bidding to host the 2008 Games — Beijing, Osaka, Toronto, Istanbul and Paris. The first such mission was dispatched to Beijing last week.

After completing the tours, the delegation — which includes four IOC members, representatives from national Olympic committees and sports organizations, and a member of the International Paralympic Committee — will submit a report to an IOC directors’ meeting in May. The final decision will be made on July 13. With the bidding race entering the homestretch, speculation is rife as to which city will be selected.

A Reuters dispatch last Wednesday jolted Osaka officials involved. It said many people see Beijing as the favorite venue, effectively ruling out Osaka and Istanbul. Beijing has long been considered an odds-on favorite. In its last invitation to the 2000 Olympics, it lost to Sydney by a narrow margin. This time around, Chinese officials are taking a different spin, stressing that Beijing, the capital of China, has never before hosted the Olympics. The implication, it seems, is that Osaka ought to stay out of the race because Japan has already hosted the Olympics three times, in Tokyo (1964), Sapporo (1972) and Nagano (1998).

In light of the overarching objective of the Olympic movement — promoting world peace through sports — there is a strong case for holding an Olympiad in a country as large as China, which has a fifth of the world’s population. That aside, China, an emerging market of more than 1.2 billion consumers, must appeal strongly to would-be commercial sponsors.

But political problems overshadow Beijing’s bid. The Reuters report, for instance, cited human-rights violations. Germany’s IOC member, Mr. Roland Baar, has criticized Chinese plans to use Tiananmen Square, the scene of the 1989 bloody suppression of prodemocracy demonstrators, as the site for beach volleyball and triathlon events.

Mr. Jan Zelezy, the IOC member from Czech Republic and a three-time gold medalist in men’s javelin, has taken issue with Beijing’s invitation, saying that in China there is no freedom of the sort that exists in Europe. Aside from the question of sports, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in a recent meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, expressed concern about Beijing’s human-rights record, citing its repression of Tibet and the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement. The IOC, however, takes the position that its primary concern is the ability of bidding cities to host the Games.

If Beijing lacks political integrity, Osaka falls short of international appeal. But Osaka has a solid urban infrastructure, an array of well-equipped sports facilities and its citizens have a spirit of hospitality. Japan’s second largest city is scheduled to host a world table tennis championship and an East Asian athletic competition this spring. These are seen as part of Osaka’s moves to sell itself to the IOC and to the world. Whether these efforts will bear fruit remain to be seen, however.

Most likely there will be twists and turns before the IOC makes its final choice in July. Osaka should have no illusions. Earlier, when it was mulling whether to make its bid, there was said to be a strong feeling among IOC and Japanese officials that, given the regional pecking order, it would be Asia’s turn to hold the 2008 Games. Subsequent events, however, seem to have tempered that feeling.

Paris, it turned out, emerged as a likely host, thanks in part to its successful performance as the host of the 1998 World Cup soccer championship. Paris was also favored because sports facilities are concentrated at convenient locations outside the city limits. Toronto is also mounting a vigorous campaign to hold the 2008 Olympics.

Indeed, nothing is certain until after committee members cast their ballots half a year from now in Moscow. In the meantime, even the most confident prediction could prove false, as happened recently when Turin, Italy, was selected as the venue for the 2006 Winter Olympics, outbidding Sion, Switzerland, which had been regarded as the sure-fire candidate. For now, however, it can be safely said — if one believes what international sports pundits are saying — that the four cities except Istanbul have about the same chance of winning the bid. It is up to the IOC to make the best choice through an objective analysis of all the available information.

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