Friday the 13th: It seems only fitting that the Olympic Games in Athens should open on one of the most inauspicious dates on the calendar. With preparations marred by construction delays, blackouts, and security concerns, the Greek capital is struggling to disperse a cloud of worry. So the five cities in the race to host the 2012 Games are pulling out all the stops to show the International Olympic Committee that they can put on a flawless performance.
So far the favorite is Paris. The City of Light scored No. 1 among the five finalists -- Madrid, London, New York, and Moscow -- in the IOC's May 18 preliminary report. "Bidding for the Games is like cooking," says Paris 2012 CEO Philippe Baudillon. "You have to find the best ingredients to make the best meals, and we already have a lot of these." The final decision will be announced on July 6, 2005.
The French capital's secret weapon is its trim budget. Spending plans drawn up by host cities will come under close scrutiny by the IOC, particularly after Athens overspent its initial budget of $3.3 billion by as much as $7 billion, according to unofficial estimates. Paris is expected to submit a bid on Nov. 15 of $4.5 billion, below London's expected $6.6 billion and New York's $5 billion-plus. Madrid and Moscow have not released estimates yet. "The IOC has got to be seen as keeping host-city spending to a minimum. If it doesn't, in the future cities simply won't be able to bid," says Mike Laflin, chief executive of Britain's Sportcal.com, a sports Internet portal.
Paris can afford to undercut rivals thanks to its excellent infrastructure. The French capital, which last hosted the Games in 1924, already boasts an 80,000-seat stadium built for soccer's 1998 World Cup. Top-notch mass transit with swift airport connections is another plus. And since Paris already hosts some 45 million visitors a year, it has plenty of tourist amenities. It also won top grades for security in the IOC report.
The French are sparing no expense to boost their chances of grabbing the gold. Eleven of the crème de la crème of France Inc., including media group Lagardère, Crédit Agricole bank, and hotel chain Accor, have contributed $11 million toward a $33.3 million marketing budget. Only London's $48 million kitty can top that. "The buzz in the industry is that Paris will get it," says Rachael Church, managing director of British sports consultant ArkSports Ltd. In this race, second- and third-place finishes get no prize at all.
By Rachel Tiplady, with Jasper Perkins, in Paris