Underdog Cities Cling to 2008 Hope

With all eyes focused on 2008 Olympic-host favorite Beijing and rivals Paris and Toronto, life is a little lonely for the Turkish and Japanese underdogs.

Istanbul and Osaka were given less than glowing reports by an International Olympic Committee evaluation commission in May and have been virtually ruled out of the race, which climaxes with Friday's vote.

While complaining that the ban on visits to candidate cities put them at a disadvantage, they are still publicly clinging to hopes of pulling off a major upset.

"Have you ever seen an athlete entering a competition with the attitude that he's going to lose?" said Istanbul bid director-general Yalcin Aksoy. "That's not sport."

"We're here to compete, and I'm optimistic," declared Aksoy, his words drowned out by the crush of journalists around smiling Beijing bid officials and by Canadian athletes united in a loud chorus of "Toronto! Toronto!" at the IOC conference center.

Even Turkey's weightlifting triple gold medallist Naim Suleymanoglu, nicknamed the "Pocket Hercules," went unnoticed by the photographers.

In a nearby booth, Japanese officials tried in vain to attract attention to their campaign claims that Osaka would provide a sporting paradise and a worry-free Games.

The IOC evaluation commission Ч all-important since visits to bid cities were banned in the wake of the Salt Lake City bribery scandal Ч cited serious financial problems with the Istanbul and Osaka bids, as well as concerns about traffic congestion.

"Because of the policy not to visit, I wonder whether IOC members truly understand the strengths of Osaka," said Mayor Takafumi Isomura.

Istanbul's Aksoy also criticized the fact that the IOC's 122 members had to rely on the findings of a "dry evaluation report" rather than being able to experience each city in person.

"It implies distrust in the IOC members. I would have felt very bad if I was an IOC member," he said.

Concern that the ban on city visits, meant to stamp out potential for corruption, puts lesser-known ones at a disadvantage is shared by Toronto.

The Canadian city is expected to compete with the French capital for second place behind Beijing. The IOC evaluation commission said all three would be able to stage an "excellent" event, but the world's most populous nation is expected to triumph for political, sentimental and marketing reasons.

Asked whether Toronto's campaign would have been helped by personal visits from IOC members, bid leader John Bitove replied: "Without question."

"Everyone's been to Paris, and a lot of people have been to Beijing. The fact that we are Canadian means that we have to work harder," he said.

With some 150 athletes actively involved in the campaign, Toronto has billed itself as the "bid of sport and athletes, not politics," offering competitors a fine waterfront site next to the city center, with minimum travel.

The French capital is relying on its natural charm and beauty to capture hearts and votes.

With the clock ticking away to the final decision, Paris campaign leaders shrugged off suggestions that Beijing was gaining ground.

"We don't mind if we are the favorites or not," said Paris 2008 director-general Noel de Saint Pulgent. "We think we have a real chance. We're serene because we did what we had to do."