MOSCOW — It's relatively quiet now in the lobby of the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel, where members of the International Olympic Committee began arriving Saturday for meetings that will be dominated by the most difficult decisions since the Salt Lake bid scandal.
Quiet, that is, until the lobby's multistory clock strikes the hour. Then the giant rooster perched on top of the hand-carved wooden timepiece begins flapping its wings and an eerie, mechanical crowing reverberates throughout the entire hotel.
So far, none of the five IOC members running for president nor any of the hundreds of representatives coming here from the five cities campaigning for the 2008 Summer Games have done anything that attracts as much attention as the clock.
Then again, the meetings don't start until Monday, and the tough choices won't be made until Friday — selecting a host city for the 2008 Games; and July 16 — selecting a new IOC president whose first Games will be the 2002 Winter Games.
One of the leading candidates for IOC president, Jacques Rogge of Belgium, isn't coming until Sunday. His closest rival, Un Yong Kim of South Korea, was to arrive Saturday.
Dick Pound of Canada, who is seen as trailing Rogge and Kim, had little to say on his way to a quiet dinner with an IOC colleague.
"You'll be surprised," Pound said when asked by a reporter whether he was indeed in third place in the IOC presidential race.
The other candidates seeking to succeed Juan Antonio Samaranch are Pal Schmitt of Hungary and Anita DeFrantz of the United States. Both are expected to be eliminated with few votes in the balloting, which will continue until one candidate receives a majority. Kim told reporters in Seoul he expects a runoff between himself and Rogge but that the outcome is up to fate.
The race may indeed be too close to call at this point. Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney has declined to publicly contemplate which candidate would be best for the 2002 Winter Games for fear of hurting his relationship whoever becomes the new president.
"Anything I might say, who knows what effect if might have on the candidates, either positive or negative," Romney said in a recent interview.
That includes commenting on the possibility of Kim opening the Salt Lake Games after being sanctioned in 1999 as a result of the IOC's own investigation into the Salt Lake scandal.
Allegations that Salt Lake bidders tried to buy the votes of IOC members with more than $1 million in cash and gifts led to a total of 10 members being sanctioned and the resignation or dismissal or 10 others.
Pound led that investigation, and Rogge and Schmitt were among the participants.
Also in 1999, a series of reforms, including a ban on bid-city visits, were adopted. Kim wants to overturn the ban but, this time, have the IOC pay the travel costs.
DeFrantz, who was involved in the Salt Lake bid but has denied any knowledge of wrongdoing, has been urged to quit the race. She shows no signs of doing so despite predictions she may end up with only four votes of the 122 that could be cast.
Even one of the official posters produced for the meeting appears to have eliminated the possibility of a DeFrantz victory. The poster features pictures of past IOC presidents and the silhouette of a man superimposed with a question mark to represent the leader who will be elected here.
The lobby at the 1970s-era concrete hotel already is starting to fill up. "You're going to see a lot of us here," said Karen Pitre, executive vice president of the Toronto bid committee. "We have a sizable delegation coming." Some 200 supporters of the Canadian bid are on their way for Friday's vote that comes at the beginning of the IOC session.
Beijing, however, continues to be seen as the can't-lose candidate despite increased opposition to China's human rights record from such organizations as the European Union. "It's David versus Goliath," Pitre said.
Chinese television will carry Friday's announcement of the winning city live. The national television station, CCTV, has sent 38 people to cover Beijing's bid.
They were among the 1,500 journalists expected here from around the globe who were setting up Saturday in their designated area — the Slavjanskaya Hotel, located across the Moscow River from where the IOC is meeting.
The press facilities include a row of slot machines featuring a progressive jackpot that by midday had reached 30,000 rubles — about $900. Gambling is prevalent in Moscow, not only in the hotels but also in neon-lit, Vegas-style casinos along the main route to the Kremlin.
About two-thirds of the journalists are broadcasters, many from Russian television networks. Russian Olympic officials are hoping to boost Moscow's prospective bid for the 2012 Summer Games. A yet-to-be named U.S. city will also be in the running for those Games.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov told Reuters the city is "fully ready" to host the 6,000 people expected here for the meeting. The news agency reported that some 4,000 police and security agents have been assigned to protect the meeting participants, including the FSB, the successor to the KGB.
Samaranch, who once served as ambassador to the former Soviet Union from his native Spain, was elected IOC president in Moscow in 1980. He spent Saturday visiting old friends, including sitting down to lunch with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin helped with the formation of the Russian Olympic Committee after the breakup of the Soviet Union, IOC Director General Francois Carrard said.
Samaranch and the other members of the IOC Executive Board will meet later this week with the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Romney and SLOC's chief operating officer, Fraser Bullock, are set to arrive in Moscow on Tuesday and report to the IOC Executive Board the next day. Romney will make a presentation to the IOC session on July 15. A press conference about the 2002 Winter Games planned by SLOC for Saturday has been moved to July 15.