David Owen small(4)They were jammed in shoulder to shoulder in the foyer of Durban's idiosyncratic Playhouse last night, as the 123rd International Olympic Committee Session got underway, with the best Opening Ceremony I have witnessed.

The pomp and ceremony that saw IOC President Jacques Rogge invested with the Order of the Companions of O R Tambo, South Africa's highest national honour, was followed by a spectacular display of vibrant African rhythms and colours.

This somehow married Ravel's Bolero with traditional Zulu dance, and the Indian-inspired Tribhangi Dance Theatre with the international rock anthem The Final Countdown.

"It was a national display of 'We Can Do'," was the verdict of one very senior and inveterately hard-to-impress IOC member.

The question on many minds was whether this 123rd Session will prompt a change of heart from the South African Government and act as a prelude to a Durban bid for the 2020 Summer Games.

Well, the evening was attended, in the front row of the stalls, by South African President Jacob Zuma.

And the formalities were laced with hints that the authorities - many of them at least - are itching to throw South Africa's and, by extension, Durban's hat into the ring.

Most of these hints were placed in the mouth of SASCOC President Gideon Sam, who told dignitaries including the newly-married Prince Albert of Monaco that "hosting events like this gives us the courage to carry on bidding for more prestigious events".

"South Africa is well aware of the need to continue hosting big events," Sam went on. "Many key decisions that will have an impact on sport in the years ahead of us will be taken at this Session."

But, given the national and international debate that has gone on since the country hosted the first African FIFA World Cup a year ago, over whether the tournament produced anything of enduring value for ordinary South Africans, it was interesting too to note the comments of President Zuma on that subject.

Reflecting on the "extraordinary four weeks", Zuma described the World Cup as "an event that brought lasting benefits to our country and continent".

But the evening also underlined the huge challenge that will face the city if it is to stand the slightest chance of piecing together a competitive Summer Olympic bid.

The crowded state of the foyer was hardly conducive to effective lobbying on what would have been the last chance for the three 2018 Winter Games Candidate Cities to bend the ear of IOC members before today's vote.

And the décor of the auditorium, with its kitsch fake starlit sky and fake Tudor-style house-fronts, reeked, to me at least, of first-half-of-the-20th-century colonialism.

It was hard to imagine anything less in keeping with the new South Africa.

Suffice to say that, while the city's sporting infrastructure and natural amenities are already extremely impressive, its general infrastructure is patchy and will need considerable investment if Durban is to become the first African host of an Olympic Games.

Since I was last here last year, I have, moreover, detected some disconcerting cracks opening up in what previously appeared to be solid relationships between local leaders.

Lesson number one for Olympic bidders in this competitive age is that a united political front is indispensable.

And this political commitment needs to be enduring, since, while first-time success is a tall order, even a failed bid can put significant credit in the bank for future bids.

On the other hand, with the world economic crisis taking its toll on national economies, 2020 is shaping up to be a less daunting contest than recent Summer Olympics races.

With powerful cards in its hand such as the IOC's failure to award a single Olympic Games to Africa in more than a century of existence, some will feel it a shame - and potentially a wasted opportunity - if South Africa decides against entering the fray.

The country has, after all, staged just about every other major sporting event in the course of the past 20 years.

Just before the lights went down for last night's show, a leading city figure assessed the chances of a bid being launched privately to me at around 60 per cent.

As things look today, I would say that's not too wide of the mark.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938