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Olympics bid seen as strong

(ran LT, ET editions of NATIONAL)

Tampa Bay's Olympic quest is greeted with incredulity by some and outright shock by others.

But as the United States Olympic Committee holds its annual conference in Orlando this week, Tampa Bay is viewed as a serious contender to become the American nominee to host the 2012 Summer Games. And it became clear Monday that local officials had accomplished much of what they set out to do during the opening reception Sunday night.

A bus load of government and business leaders traveled to Orlando to mingle with USOC members and staff. Their goal was to take advantage of the fact that the USOC conference was in Florida by making an impression and generating momentum for their bid.

They did both.

USOC Executive Director Dick Schultz remembered the eagerness and enthusiasm of the Tampa Bay contingent.

"They think providence worked in their favor by having this here," Schultz said with a smile Monday.

Tampa Bay-area officials have said repeatedly that their bid is a regional one that would include Orlando, and the hundreds of USOC members and staff are getting a taste of how smoothly that pastel playland handles hordes.

Randy Johnson, president and CEO of the Orlando Area Sports Commission, said his city had planned to make a bid of its own for the 2012 Games. Research had been done, and private money had been raised to pay the bid fee. But Johnson said Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood, who is up for re-election on Tuesday, would not sign off on the idea.

"She didn't feel like we could do it by ourselves," Johnson said.

So Orlando has joined forces with Tampa Bay.

Most of the USOC personnel are staying at Orlando's Omni Rosen Hotel or the Peabody Hotel. Both are a quick shuttle ride to the Orange County Convention Center, where the cities that are bidding for the 2012 Games have set up booths to show off what their areas have to offer and to scope out the competition.

After touting their own chances, representatives of the nine other cities in the running grudgingly say Tampa Bay is a heavyweight.

"We view Tampa as one of the formidable competitors of the group," said Joe Ewen, a City Council member from Arlington, Texas.

Like Arlington, Tampa Bay got into the running late; it paid the non-refundable $150,000 bid fee only a few days before last month's deadline. But Ewen said that won't hurt the chances of either area.

"Had the decision not been made to push the (USOC selection) date back, that would have hurt all the cities that got in late, including Tampa and Arlington," Ewen said.

The USOC did, however, decide that it won't pick its nominee until 2002. And Schultz even said some of Tampa Bay's competitors, which have been planning their bids for years, may have "jumped out too quickly."

"I feel bad if some are discomforted by the timeline changes, but I don't see any way this could have been done by 2000; maybe by late 2001, but not by 2000."

Representatives of the other areas also said having the opening reception and conference in Florida is a plus.

"You always like to have these things in your city," said Steve Pierson, who is helping Houston put together its bid. "I just hope we can do something like this before the decision is made."

Tampa Bay is hoping to press its case further tonight when the bid cities hold a reception for the USOC members. The Citrus Queen and a cigar roller will be on hand. Paella and Florida orange juice will be served to give USOC personnel a flavor of the Tampa Bay area.

Tampa Bay's ace appears to be George Steinbrenner, a former USOC member who apparently still has clout with the organization.

"George told me Tampa was in it," said LeRoy Walker, the USOC's immediate past president and its president emeritus. "He told me he was supporting it. That's a good start when he decides to support you."