Olympic race on to pick 'lord of the rings'

ARGENTINA - The true main event of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Buenos Aires takes place on Tuesday.

After the sideshow of the Olympic host city tussle and the formality of reinstating wrestling as an Olympic sport, electing a new leader is the race IOC members have been waiting for.

"We don't do this every day, it's been 12 years since we elected a new president," said Mr Gerardo Werthein, IOC member from Argentina, and host of the 125th session. "It's a historic occasion.

So you can imagine how important this decision is."

Six men, among them Singapore's Mr Ng Ser Miang, 64, are in the running to replace Belgian Jacques Rogge as the most powerful man in sport.

IOC members have read the candidates' manifestos and heard them present their case at a recent IOC retreat. On Tuesday, they will make up their minds.

The whispers in the lobby of the Hilton Buenos Aires - venue for the session and the members' hotel - have it that the favourite, Mr Thomas Bach of Germany, has amassed 48 or 49 votes. That is enough for victory over his two main challengers - Mr Ng, the IOC's first vice-president, and Puerto Rico's Mr Richard Carrion, 60, the IOC's top finance man.

If true, it would mean that Mr Bach, 59, would get the absolute majority of the 96-97 secret votes estimated (some members, such as Mr Rogge, will not participate) and end the race in the first round.

But the reality is that obtaining such a huge share of the votes, especially when there are five other contenders, is a tall order.

Some in the inner circle of the IOC speculate that the reason why six members are contesting, a record number in a presidential election, is precisely to guard against a first-round win.

As Ukrainian pole vault great and presidential hopeful Sergei Bubka, at 49 the youngest of the six, told The Straits Times: "We have a good selection of worthy candidates."

Added Mr Ng: "That we have six unique candidates represents the universality of the Olympic movement."

Yet one can understand why Mr Bach, a 22-year IOC veteran and widely regarded as someone who has long been groomed to take over the five rings, is desperate for a quick end to the contest.

While he probably does have a stranglehold on a sizeable section of loyal members, he has, of late, also been a polarising figure.

His close links to Kuwaiti IOC member Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah is something that makes other members uneasy. The sheikh, dubbed a kingmaker by IOC watchers, recently played an active role in helping to install the new president of SportAccord, the union of all world sports federations.

Mr Bach also drew criticism after a report last month revealed a culture of doping among West German athletes. Mr Bach, who heads the German National Olympic Committee and was a fencing gold medallist for West Germany in the 1976 Olympics, said he had initiated the study that went back to the 1970s. Yet the report has not revealed any names.

As such, swing votes from eliminated candidates will have a big say in the eventual outcome, and the longer the contest goes on, the higher the chance of an upset.

The talk in Buenos Aires is that Swiss candidate Denis Oswald, 67, and Taiwan hopeful Wu Ching-kuo, 66, are likely to be eliminated early. Mr Bubka, while popular, is still seen as one for the future, given his relative youth.

All this means that the race will likely go to a decisive fourth round, where their supporters will choose from those left standing - Mr Bach, Mr Ng and Mr Carrion - thereby determining their fate.

IOC members will be well aware of the fact that seven out of eight IOC chiefs in 119 years have been European, with an American the only exception.

But in the end, they will vote for a man they trust and respect.

They have opted for the familiar and safe choices in Tokyo and wrestling so far. If they choose the status quo again, chances are it will be Mr Bach.

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