SINGAPORE – London vs. Paris. Tea and crumpets vs. wine and cheese. British determination vs. French confidence. The hotly contested race to host the 2012 Olympics (search) came down to an Old World battle of rival cities separated for centuries by culture and Channel.
Surprise. London won.
The British capital, which last had the games in 1948 while continental Europe was rebuilding in the aftermath of World War II (search), upset Paris 54-50 on the fourth ballot Wednesday. Moscow, New York and Madrid were knocked out in the first three rounds of the International Olympic Committee (search) vote.
"This is our moment," said London bid leader Sebastian Coe, a former Olympic middle-distance champion. "It's massive. It's huge. This is the biggest prize in sport."
It was also a victory laced with political significance, with Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) getting the better of French President Jacques Chirac (search). Both leaders came to Singapore to lobby for the bids before flying to the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.
"Many people do reckon that London is the greatest city in the whole world at the moment," an exultant Blair said after hearing the result. "I couldn't bear to watch the final bit of it. It's not often in this job that you punch the air and do a little jig and embrace the person next to you."
London, which also held the games in 1908, becomes the first three-time Olympic host city.
It was a devastating defeat for Paris, which expected to win but has now lost three Olympic bids in 20 years. Paris, which hasn't staged the Olympics since 1924, also came up short for the 1992 and 2008 games.
"I'm very disappointed," French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said. "I feel there's an empty hole in front of me. I'm almost at the bottom. Why didn't they pick up our concept, our promotion, our strategy? This is a misunderstanding because I can tell you our work was the best."
Paris had been widely seen as the front-runner throughout the two-year race but struggled with the burden of being favorite and ran a cautious campaign. London, by contrast, pursued a high-profile, aggressive strategy and picked up steady momentum under the leadership of Coe and the strong political backing of Blair.
Yet most people were taken aback when IOC president Jacques Rogge opened a sealed envelope and announced, with a beaming smile, that London had won the right to stage the games of the XXX Olympiad.
"I think well over half of my colleagues thought we were going to hear Jacques say, `Paris,"' senior Canadian member Dick Pound said. "I think a lot of people from London probably thought that was what they were going to hear. It was a surprise."
Many IOC members said Blair's 48-hour lobbying blitz in Singapore and Coe's passionate appeal during Wednesday's final presentations to the IOC were crucial.
"With Seb, you've got a bid leader from central casting," Pound said. "I think if Blair hadn't come, this (winning) press conference would have been in French."
"We got down to the two best bids in my view," he added. "We would have been satisfied with either. The differences were the people. I don't think Paris lost; I think London won."
The Olympic contest was inflamed by the recent tensions between Blair and Chirac, who have clashed over the Iraq war and European Union farm subsidies. On top of that, Chirac was quoted this week as trashing Britain's "bad food" and making a snide remark about mad cow disease.
But Blair wasn't rubbing it in.
"Britain must be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat," he said.
Coe has always said that winning the 2012 bid would mean more to him than his two 1,500-meter gold medals.
"I have to say this is almost an entirely different planet," he said, choking back tears.
Many members said they were touched by Coe's heartfelt speech during the presentations about how Britain would use the 2012 Olympics to influence young people to pursue sport. He remembered how his own career was inspired by watching on a black-and-white television in a school hall as two people from his hometown competed in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
London's Olympic project is centered on the massive urban renewal of a dilapidated area of East London, which will be turned into an Olympic park. The London Olympics will also feature tennis at Wimbledon, archery at Lord's cricket ground and triathlon at Hyde Park.
The bid got off to a slow start but made big strides under Coe, who replaced American businesswoman Barbara Cassani as chairman in May 2004. Coe will stay on to lead the 2012 organizing committee, while Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell — the cabinet official overseeing the bid — will be Olympics minister.
Rogge, a former Olympic sailor, recalled meeting Coe for the first time in the athletes' village in Moscow in 1980. That's where Coe won the first of his two gold medals.
"We couldn't have dreamed at the time that we would, 25 years later, be signing the host city contract," Rogge said.
The eliminations in the first three rounds came as no surprise. Moscow was always considered the longshot, with New York and Madrid outsiders.
Moscow, which had hoped the Olympics would validate its post-Soviet transformation, went out with 15 votes in the first round. Then New York, which had made the games the centerpiece of its recovery from the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, dropped out with 16 votes. Madrid, the only European capital of its size never to host an Olympics, was next out with 31 votes.
Despite being a favorite, Paris never led in the voting, and London never trailed Paris. London led the first round with 22 votes, while Paris had 21, Madrid 20 and New York 19. Madrid surprisingly took the lead in the second round with 32 votes, followed by London with 27 and Paris 25. London then picked up a big chunk of New York's votes to lead Paris 39-33 in the third round. France gained 17 of Madrid's votes, but London got 15 — and that was enough to stay ahead and secure the win.
"Besides London, the IOC and the Olympic Games are the winner," Rogge said. "We are very, very pleased with the victory of London. People we trust, people we know will give us a superb games."
Rogge also expressed sympathy for the losers.
"We who have competed in sport know the cruelty of sport," he said. "This is crueler. There's only a gold medal, not a silver and bronze."
Rogge encouraged the losers to bid again. But it's unlikely the games will go back to Europe in 2016, and New York officials pointedly declined to commit to another bid. The U.S. Olympic Committee said it would open up a new bid process for American cities interested in going for 2016.