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2020 GAMES HOPES

Madrid’s decade-long Olympic dream faces final sprint in Buenos Aires

Capital’s bid team has prepared meticulously for vote to decide 2020 host city

A recreation of plans for the Puerta de Alcalá in the city center on September 7, from where the decision will be broadcast live. Ampliar foto
A recreation of plans for the Puerta de Alcalá in the city center on September 7, from where the decision will be broadcast live.

While campaigning in Asia, thousands of kilometers from Madrid, former Spanish rower Theresa Zabell, a gold medalist in Barcelona in 1992, received a curious piece of advice: “Keep your country under control until September 8; not one item of bad news until then.”

Zabell, the international relations manager for Madrid’s 2020 Olympic bid, was given the nugget by a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Although she diplomatically does not reveal where she was, or who is was that said it, she admits that it was in reference to Gibraltar.

With just over a week until the final vote for the 2020 host city on September 7, the Spanish capital’s bid team is on tenterhooks. Despite everything being in place, they fear they may return from Buenos Aires with empty hands, as was the case in failed bids for both the 2012 and 2016 Games. What is beyond Madrid’s control is a damaging headline or a carefully aimed question; nobody has forgotten Albert of Monaco’s intervention in 2005: his question about ETA was an attack to Madrid’s jugular.

Zabell and Madrid 2020 chief executive, Víctor Sánchez, have traveled the world drumming up support for the capital’s latest bid, which received a boost via a favorable report by an IOC evaluation commission in June. A month later in Lausanne, Madrid’s presentation featured an impassioned speech by the Prince of Asturias: “Supporting Madrid 2020 is no mere formality. I am an Olympian,” the heir to the throne said.

Gasol, Belmonte, Perales... and Messi?

Madrid’s delegation in Buenos Aires will feature several Olympians. Pau Gasol of the LA Lakers, Mireia Belmonte, Ona Carbonell, Teresa Perales and Felipe Reyes are all to travel to Argentina to support the capital’s 2020 bid in the run-up to September 7.

Perales has won 22 Paralympic swimming medals — the same number as Michael Phelps — while Belmonte and Carbonell each won two in London last year. Gasol and Reyes were part of the silver-medalist basketball team in 2012.

“We are very excited that Pau will speak in the name of Spain’s athletes; first because of the personal friendship we have and second because he was our flag-bearer in London,” said Spanish Olympic Committee president Alejandro Blanco. “Spanish sport needs the momentum that an Olympics would give it and Madrid is a city that is perfectly prepared to host one,” said Gasol.

The Madrid team has also asked Rafa Nadal to join the delegation, but that depends on his results in the US Open. A request to Leo Messi to drop in has also been made — Argentina plays a World Cup qualifier in Paraguay on September 10.

Gasol will participate in the final presentation, which will focus on Madrid’s budget: “One of the lowest in the recent history of the Games,” noted Blanco.

Now the final test awaits. The first representatives of Madrid’s 20-strong delegation are already in Buenos Aires to prepare the capital's end game to the last detail. But not everything can be calculated precisely, as detailed by Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, in a 2005 interview with EL PAÍS. The Belgian explained that being successfully awarded the Games depends on three basic questions. Security is the priority issue, followed by the comfort of the Olympic family. But the third factor “which cannot be defined in writing,” he said, “is personal chemistry.” The Madrid 2020 bid team — and presumably those of Tokyo and Istanbul, the other hopeful cities — have been fostering this chemistry for the past two years. And they will continue to so do up until the very vote itself.

The advance party touched down well ahead of the arrival of IOC officials on September 1 for an assembly at which a successor to Rogge will also be chosen. However, they are also eager to avoid generating any sense of intrusion in the eyes of the governing body, such as the visit of Barack Obama to Copenhagen in 2009 when the vote for 2016 was taking place, in support of Chicago’s bid.

The IOC has 104 delegates of which 99 will participate in the first round of voting as the other five are nationals of one or other of the candidate countries. Among these are three very clear groups and an amalgam that is difficult to define: the 15 national Olympic Committee presidents, a further 15 representatives of international federations and 15 athletes, who are there to vote with purely sporting interests in mind, all form a cohesive bloc. But the rest of the delegates are independent members who will be difficult to bring together under one banner. “Imagine you have to convince a panel of journalists, taxi drivers and businessmen of the merits of a project, with just one speech. What do you say? The common point of interest may be something that never occurred to you,” says Alejandro Blanco, president of the Spanish Olympic Committee and the bid leader.

If geopolitics is taken into account, Spain’s ongoing dispute with the UK and Gibraltar could play into the hands of Tokyo and Istanbul. Almost a quarter of the delegates come from Commonwealth countries and could join forces against Madrid. However, its rivals are hardly in better shape if headlines are a factor, in view of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and May’s anti-government street protests in Istanbul.

Aside from the news, that common message is difficult to find. Rio, the next host city, managed it: “By using the tag of South America’s first Games, an emotional appeal was directed at Africa, which also has yet to host an Olympics. They were saying ‘you could be next’,” says Blanco.

Istanbul is playing a similar card: “They have sought out a new frontier to be breached by talking of an alliance of civilizations,” says Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr.

Madrid’s message, in line with the times, is one of an austere candidacy. The investment pending on installations in the capital, according to the budget submitted to the IOC, amounts to $1.94 billion, compared to $16.8 billion for Istanbul and $4.38 billion in Tokyo. “It’s an acceptable message for the vast majority of aspirants,” says Sánchez. “We’re not talking about spending the earth; it’s an exportable model.”

Spain has three sitting IOC members — Samaranch Jr, Patxi Perurena and Marisol Casado — who will work from within to convince colleagues of the merits of the bid. However, Spain’s best ambassador comes from the royal palace. “I told Felipe to stop calling me to ask for my vote; I was fed up with him,” joked Frederik of Denmark recently. The crown prince has taken a more active role than any royal in the 2020 bid — the queen was at the forefront of the 2012 attempt and the king for Madrid’s second. Felipe will spend five days in Buenos Aires fraternizing with IOC members, whose number includes a dozen royals from the world over, and play a part in the presentation.

On September 7 at 5pm local time, Madrid will play for the top prize. The capital’s presentation is scheduled last. There is no room for errors and a little for lady luck. As Zabell recalls from her competing days: “The first one wins, the second loses and the rest participate.” In Buenos Aires her words are truer than ever; there is no silver medal for coming in second. At 10.30pm Spanish time, Rogge will announce the winner.