BEIJING keeps nose ahead as cities make final pitches for 2008

Thursday, July 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ Smiling through questions about executions and human rights, Beijing officials made a polished pitch Thursday for the 2008 Olympics, avoiding any last-minute blunders that could derail their candidacy.

At their final news conferences before the International Olympic Committee chooses the 2008 host on Friday, all five bidding cities sought to project the message that they would put on the best Games.

Paris promised a telegenic Olympics in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Toronto portrayed itself as the athletes' bid, with sporting venues along its waterfront. Osaka and Istanbul insisted they were still in the running despite doubts expressed by Olympic inspectors.

But attention focused on Beijing, which has led the race for months. The news conference was one of the last hurdles for Chinese officials keen to avoid any mistake that could turn IOC sentiment against them.

Would China _ the world leader in executions _ stop using the death penalty? Would a foreign tourist be arrested for protesting with a Tibetan flag? Would reporters be allowed to work freely?

The responses to these and other tricky questions were delivered in fluent English by relaxed officials who never came close to losing their cool. They complimented reporters on their questions and smiled almost constantly.

Wang Wei, secretary general of the Beijing bid, noted that China is not the only nation to use the death penalty. Journalists, meanwhile, would have ''complete freedom to report on anything'' if Beijing wins, he said.

As to protests, Wang said: ''If you have a different opinion you are welcome to voice it.'' But he also noted that Chinese law requires would-be demonstrators to get police permission _ which is almost never given.

Wang repeated what has become a Beijing mantra in its race for 2008 _ that the Olympics would promote not just economic development in China, but human rights too.

The world's most populous nation has never held the games, so ``a winning Beijing bid will make history,'' Wang said. ''We are well prepared and fully confident.''

Despite the momentum behind Beijing, Osaka's mayor, Takafumi Isomura, said he believed many IOC members wouldn't make their choice until after the five cities' final presentations Friday before the vote.

Toronto faced questions about its mayor, Mel Lastman, who was forced to apologize last month after joking that he was reluctant to attend an Olympic meeting in Africa because, ``I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.''

''Our mayor has apologized and we've moved on,'' said Canadian athlete Sandra Levy, who is black.

''We believe Olympic medals are given to the best of the best, and we believe our bid is the best of the best,'' said another Canadian, Marnie McBean.

Without criticizing Beijing, Paris official Jean Paul Huchon suggested that human rights concerns could affect Friday's outcome.

''Everyone is informed of the human rights situation in each bidding country,'' Huchon said. ''We consider our bid is in line with what is desirable in human rights and this question cannot be out of the mind of those who have to take the final decision.''

Istanbul, which is making its third attempt, refused to give up hope.

``Barcelona first bid in 1936 and they hosted the Games in 1992. You have to work for it,' said Sinan Erdem, president of the Turkish Olympic Committee.