Ignoring widespread protests from human rights activists concerned that granting Beijing its Olympic dream will signal acceptance of its repressive political regime, IOC officials gave the nod to anxious Chinese officials, at 10 p.m. local time, choosing Beijing over chief rivals Toronto and Paris. Istanbul, Turkey and Osaka, Japan had also placed bids.
What will the first Chinese Olympics be like? How did China nail down their bid? TIME international correspondent Barry Hillenbrand has covered four Olympics for TIME (most recently the 2000 summer games in Sydney). He spoke with TIME.com Friday morning after the announcement.
TIME.com: Was todayís vote a real surprise to anyone?
Barry Hillenbrand: No. Everybody knew that Beijing was the leader on the basis of the fact that theyíd been the runner up in the 1993 vote that gave Sydney the 2000 Games.
So Beijing had that fact working in their favor. They also had (IOC president Juan Antonio) Samaranch wanting to bring China into the fold thatís the geo-political angle on why we should have China as the host.
The other primary argument was that to some extent, it was also just Asiaís turn this time around. The 2000 games were in Sydney; theyíll be in Athens in 2004, then in Italy in 2006 for the winter games.
Listening to the Chinese officials talk about the vote before it happened, you definitely got the sense they were going to be extremely annoyed if they didnít win the bid this year. Do you think the IOC members were bullied or pressured to make this decision?
I donít think so. The IOC membership is the most independent (106 independent people) voting body youíll ever find. Itís made up of 106 people who can vote and do whatever they please.
But itís certainly true that Beijing wasnít happy in í93 when they didnít get the vote. They were eminently confident then, and they didnít get it and went into a sulk and didnít apply for the next round. And this decision was enormously important for China as a nation. They want to show the world theyíre a big, important nation and that they can do this right
Does Beijing, as a city, have something that makes it especially attractive to Olympic organizers?
Not especially. On a number of fronts, Beijing is less attractive than Toronto and Paris.
Paris had the backdrop of the century for example, they were planning to hold the equestrian events in the Tuilieries. it would have been spectacular. And Toronto had a very compact, very interesting site proposal.
But Beijing will mount credible games because theyíll have great audiences and spend a lot of money making sure the structures are good. . Theyíll do a wonderful job on the technical front. Itís the spirit and soul that Iím worried about.
With that misgiving in mind, what do you think these games will be like?
These games will be highly stylized. Youíre going to get packed houses, but packed with subdued crowds, just as they were in Nagano and Seoul. Asian crowds are just differentóthereís not going to be the spontaneity that makes the Olympics special. And thatís a real problem, not only for the spectators but for the athletes as well.
In Sydney, for example, the crowds were incredibly vocal, and would chant, and go crazy. And this made every venue and every event incredibly exciting for he crowds and for the athletes. I fear thatís one of the things will be lacking in China.
Has Beijing started construction on any facilities for the Games?
That's one of the last things they worry about in China. Rest assured that everything will be built on time and to specifications. The Chinese will do very well on the specifics: Seating, logistics, et cetera.
There is one other potential problem: Security and inflexibility. The great thing about Sydney was that if things werenít working according to plan, the Australians bent the rules and improvised, with wonderful ease. That just isnít going to happen in China.
What we saw in Beijing after the vote was announced is a pretty good indicator of what weíre going to see in 2008: A lot of flags, a lot of national pride and a lot of staged celebrations.