IOC Prepares for End of an Era

Secrecy was in the Moscow air Monday as sports leaders began what is expected to be a historic week in the history of the Olympic Games.

As octogenarian Juan Antonio Samaranch started his last set of meetings in charge of the International Olympic Committee after 21 years as president, few IOC members were prepared to reveal their voting plans in Friday's decision for the 2008 Summer Games Ч where China is the favorite to be handed the Games for the first time.

Even fewer were prepared to say whom they will be backing in the key election on the successor to Samaranch three days later on July 16 Ч either in private or in public.

The next eight days will mark the end of an era in the Olympic movement. The most prestigious and powerful job in the world of sports administration is vacant for the first time since 1980. Few sports leaders want to leave Moscow next week admitting that they backed the losing candidate and not the new president.

"People are keeping their cards very close to their chest," said one Olympic source. "Everybody is talking around the subject without revealing their intentions."

The IOC is expected to make history by handing the Summer Games to China, the world's most populous country. Beijing, which lost to Sydney in the vote for the 2000 Games, is expected to hold off a strong challenge from Paris and Toronto with the other two candidates Ч Japan's Osaka and Istanbul Ч regarded as outsiders.

But IOC races are always difficult to call in advance. This time it is even more difficult since members are keeping quiet about their 2008 voting plans in the secret ballot because they fear their decision may be different from that of the new president.

Belgian surgeon Jacques Rogge is the favorite to win the five-strong presidency race but the former Olympic yachtsman is expected to face fierce competition from South Korean politician Kim Un-yong and Canadian lawyer Dick Pound.

Samaranch has refused to say which city he supports after a campaign that has seen demonstrators on the doorsteps of the IOC in Switzerland calling for Beijing's bid to be turned down because of China's human rights record.

But the Spaniard has always been a leader who liked symbolism and is thought to be keen to bring the Games to a new part of the world before he steps down. China has the added bonus of an attractive economy to the blue chip sponsors who back the Games.

Beijing's bid has been controversial, and human rights protesters have said they want to demonstrate in Moscow against the Chinese. Beijing's bid has been opposed by a bipartisan coalition of U.S. lawmakers as well as by supporters of human rights in Tibet, which the Communist state has ruled with an iron fist since the 1950s.

The IOC has also received threats from anti-China groups warning members of attacks if they vote for Beijing.

Security was tight, but not overbearing, at the central Moscow hotel on Monday where leaders will hold all of their meetings.

Olympics sources believe the IOC will back Beijing, believing the Olympics can help influence China in the next seven years in economic and political terms. It would be a surprise if the IOC turned its back on the Chinese for the second time in a decade.

Stock markets around the world will be watching Friday's decision with interest since it could affect major blue chip companies who are working hard on Chinese markets as well as the country's own economy.

Samaranch has decided to stage the meeting in the same city where he was first elected president before the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the middle of a Cold War era dominated by Olympic boycotts. The world order and the Games have changed dramatically since those days of the Soviet Union.

The Olympics, regarded in the 1970s as a massive economic headache, are now a lucrative business, backed by rich international sponsors and television networks that are prepared to pay billions of dollars for exclusive marketing and television rights.

///BLOB/// Princess Anne will vote against Beijing as 2008 Olympic host because of concerns about China's human rights record and the occupation of Tibet, The Associated Press reported.

Princess Anne, one of Britain's two International Olympic Committee members, will vote for Toronto, Canada, in Friday's vote, The Observer newspaper said Sunday.

The newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying Princess Anne would not vote for Beijing under any circumstances. She has reportedly refused to meet Beijing officials in Britain or at IOC meetings elsewhere.

Her brother, Prince Charles, is a strong supporter of Tibet and a friend and admirer of the country's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.

Earlier this year, Princess Anne expressed an interest in visiting Tibet Ч which has been occupied by China since 1950 Ч but was prevented by the British Foreign Office.