THE vote that Olympic-watchers have long awaited - the one that determines the host city for the 2000 Games - takes place in Geneva on Thursday. The suspense is extra thick because of Beijing's no-holds-barred bid to win the assignment and strong efforts by some to block China.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is on the spot. No matter how it decides between front-runners Sydney and Beijing, there will be howls of protest. In this politically charged vote, any ballot cast for Sydney will be perceived by some as a vote against Beijing.
Perhaps most irksome to Beijing has been the resolution passed in the United States Congress demanding rejection of China's offer because of its record on human rights. Zhang Baifa, chief executive of Beijing's bid organization, reportedly warned that China may boycott the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta if Beijing is not chosen. Higher authorities, however, have assured the IOC that China will participate in the 1996 centennial Games.
The fact is, competition has become fierce for the Games since Los Angeles virtually won them by default in 1984. And in Sydney, the rest of the the Olympic field - Berlin, Manchester (England), Istanbul, Beijing - is up against a formidable foe, given Sydney's many selling points, including its friendly, accommodating attitude.
The 90-member vote will be by secret ballot, which is to Beijing's advantage, since nobody who chooses Beijing will have to defend his politics.
Ironically, it may be the achievement of a Chinese athlete that dooms Beijing's bid. When distance runner Wang Junxia set three world records in five days this month (including one that shattered the 10,000-meter record by 42 seconds), she renewed suspicions that Chinese performances might be drug-enhanced. Granted, the Chinese have gotten very serious about training, but many wonder why China's men don't show comparable improvement. Wang's race results gather more clouds over a bid that was already darkened. Olympic officials are very sensitive to the potential for drug-related scandal at the Games, so Beijing may be too hot to handle now. Even so, speculation has grown in recent days that China's bid is in some ways too good to pass up. Local coalitions buy baseball teams
Local ownership consortiums, consisting of investors with name recognition, may be the new prototype in pro sports. This, at least, is the direction baseball has taken with its most recent ownership swaps, which have seen the San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles change hands.
To avert a possible move to Florida, a group of wealthy Bay Area civic and business leaders joined forces to buy the Giants for $100 million before the current season. The managing partner among 20 new Giants co-owners is Peter Magowan, chairman of the Safeway supermarket chain. He is joined by such San Francisco corporate luminaries as Donald Fisher, founder of The Gap clothing chain, and Charles Schwab of discount brokerage fame.
Then, in midseason, the Orioles were purchased at a bankruptcy auction for a whopping $173 million, which is reportedly $48 million more than anyone had ever spent on a baseball team. Although there is one major out-of-town partner, 80 percent of the team is owned by the Baltimore side of the coalition. Among the partners joining Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos are several celebrities with roots either in the city or in Maryland, including sportscaster Jim McKay of Olympic and ``ABC's Wide World of Sports'' fame, tennis player Pam Shriver, and techno-thriller writer Tom Clancy. Underdog Cubs win hearts of Chicago fans
If the White Sox hold on to their lead in the American League West, they will become the first Chicago team to make baseball's playoffs since 1984. But even with a new ballpark, a winning team, and a hot-selling line of merchandise, the White Sox have been outpaced at the box office by the noncontending Cubs. It seems another victory for the charms of Wrigley Field, the large fan base cultivated by magnetic broadcaster Harry Caray, and the powerful reach of WGN-TV, the superstation that carries Cubs games. As of last week, 2.4 million fans had clicked the turnstiles at Wrigley, compared with 2.2 million at Comiskey Park.