The planet's most concentrated backroom lobbying effort reaches its zenith this weekend in one of the world's grand capitals, and no, it doesn't have anything to do with war in Syria.
On Saturday the International Olympic Committee meets in Buenos Aires to crown the victor in the bidding to host the 2020 Summer Games.
The finalist cities are Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid, and each has been assured it's a fair fight – such has not traditionally been the case for a process that would have made Machiavelli blush and is historically among humanity's most corrupt endeavours.
A famous, possibly apocryphal tale about how things used to work: A man checks in to a posh hotel in one of the bid cities where IOC delegates are known to stay, and contacts a local bid committee official under nebulous pretenses. The official is informed $10,000 in cash has been stolen from the man's hotel room, and that while it's all well and proper to involve the police, couldn't this be settled more easily and quietly amongst ourselves?
"And then the penny would drop," said Olympic watcher Stefan Szymanski, who teaches sports management at the University of Michigan and has written extensively about the economics of international sporting events.
It's said the man pulled off the swindle multiple times in several countries.
"I love that story," said Mr. Szymanski, who added it is oft-told but he can't vouch for its veracity. "Now, I think we can say the most outrageous corruption has disappeared, but it's still essentially a clubby kind of activity.
"They've all promised not to cheat and bribe, so that must be all there is to it, right? And that's the problem, isn't it: How would we really know?"
Whether or not the process is actually fair – Mr. Szymanski argues rigorous technical requirements and various bureaucratic and ethical reforms make it a great deal more so than in the past – it remains a fascinating exercise in geopolitics and electoral unpredictability.
Reports have emerged this week that Madrid is close to capturing the required ballot total, but given the inscrutability of the actual vote and the shifting voting blocs, who really knows?
Speculation is also rampant that the IOC will follow the international soccer federation's lead and opt to hold the Games in a Muslim country for the first time (the 2022 World Cup has been awarded to Qatar).
But the betting odds strongly favour the Japanese bid, which is on the stoutest financial and technical footing and provides the best guarantees that top-quality facilities will be built on time and on budget.
"The only thing I trust is people putting money on it ... that's the only form of sincerity that's relevant now," Mr. Szymanski said.
Though ongoing problems in Japan's nuclear industry cast doubt on the suitability of the bid, they pale in comparison with the political instability associated with Turkey and the Middle East, and the shambles that is the Spanish economy.
At the same time, all the logic that applies to Tokyo, which has previously hosted the Games, applied to Paris in the bidding for the 2012 Summer Olympics – which were awarded to London.
There's no such thing as a perfect bid, but the reformed process has yielded three candidacies that is each problematic in its own way.
Yet none of the foregoing has in any way diminished the considerable international interest in hosting the Games, and each of the remaining contestants has pulled out all stops – flying in royalty and famous athletes to woo delegates, dispatching legions of emissaries to twist arms in hotel bars and hallways.
Study after study has demonstrated there is little or no economic rationale that supports splashing out billions to host the Olympics, but research has also shown that more amorphous things like national pride and well-being do increase measurably in countries where the Games are held.
As it prepares to usher in new leadership, the IOC is being urged to take nothing for granted.
Outgoing president Jacques Rogge told a news conference in Buenos Aires, where Saturday's vote will be held, "The challenge for the sport movement is to clearly indicate and prove that there is a good legacy after staging such events ... that it is a win-win situation for the city and the region."
Mr. Rogge cited "both the human and the urban legacy" from the London Olympics, it's interesting to note he didn't include economic benefits and spinoffs in the equation.
But then hosting the Olympics isn't really about a sound financial calculus, it's about things like prestige.
The international spotlight awaits. Will it next shine on Tokyo, Istanbul, or Madrid?
Finances and location. Tokyo is regarded as the financially safe and most organized choice. The city's bid team has pitched the IOC on its ability to leverage Asia's massive marketing potential.
"Asia is the only continent in the world with more people living within its territory than outside," said Fujio Cho, president of the Japan Sports Association. "Consequently it is the largest market in the world, with billions of passionate sports fans."
Fukushima. Less than three years into what could be a four-decade cleanup, the nuclear disaster sparked by an earthquake and tsunami is very much the Achilles heel of Tokyo's efforts to bag the Games. Japan has been reassuring the IOC, saying the plant poses no danger to athletes or spectators.
"The government will stand at the forefront to completely fix this problem," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "I want to explain that this is not going to be a problem in any way in seven years' time."
In fact, the Japanese government is arguing that a 2020 Tokyo Olympics would inspire the world by showcasing how Japan has recovered from the triple catastrophe of March, 2011. Japan's northern Pacific coastline was hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, unleashing a towering tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people. Cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were swamped. Reactors went into meltdown and spewed radioactive materials over a tract of prime farmland.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes; many are still unable to return.
Surprisingly, Madrid's strongest selling point is financial – its bid, at $5-billion (U.S.), is considered penny-pinching when compared to London 2012's estimated cost of $13-billion.
The city is boasting that 90 per cent of the infrastructure needed to host the event is already in place. Twenty-eight of the 35 venues already exist and only four permanent structures will be added, including an Olympic village of 19 apartment blocks, to be built with private investment and later used as social housing.
"Most of the investment to celebrate and organize 2020 has already been done. Madrid today, unlike other cities, does not have to turn itself upside down with works across the whole city," said Jose Maria Gay de Liebana, economist and professor at Barcelona University.
The economy. Spain is still in a deep recession that created Europe's highest jobless rate, now more than 26 per cent. Madrid has debt of $9.8-billion; the wider Madrid region is in debt to the tune of $28.3-billion; and Spain's overall public debt stands at $1.2-trillion, equal to 88.2 per cent of the country's entire annual economic output.
Spain's response is that the country's debilitating economic crisis is ending and the country will have no problem covering investments and rallying support at home to host the 2020 Games. It also said the Olympics will help the economy and will generate 83,000 full-time jobs.
"I sincerely believe that the Games would revitalize the economy, though they would not be a panacea," Madrid Mayor Ana Botella said in an interview with leading daily El Pais.
Bid chief Alejandro Blanco said a poll conducted in August found 91 per cent of Spaniards support Madrid as Olympic host – up from 81 per cent in a poll in March.
"This shows that support in Spain for our candidacy is practically unanimous," he said.
The head of Turkey's bid says a vote for Istanbul would "make history." No Muslim country has hosted the Olympics, so Turkey would be a first. "The Olympic Movement can open the door to a new culture," Hasan Arat said. "In this region there has never been an Olympic Games before."
Istanbul is also selling the region's youth: "Look at our neighbours, 400 million in the age group [under-25s]," Mr. Arat said "Now this Games is so important for their future and lives, creating role models."
Like all the bidders, Turkey claims it has the best financial conditions for the Games and is most likely to complete projects on time. It would also be, organizers say, an unrivalled experience for athletes.
"Imagine being a marathon runner crossing continents over the Bosporus Bridge, a triathlete racing alongside Istanbul's 2,500 year-old city walls or a volleyball player spiking for the match with the Bosporus at your back," Turkish IOC member Ugur Erdener said. "Istanbul has that magic athletes thrive on and they will be at the centre of the greatest stage in 2020."
Geopolitics, especially the feeling that Istanbul is a risky choice given its proximity to Syria – with a U.S. military strike likely imminent against the Syrian government and the strain on Turkey of a refugee exodus from Syria's civil war.
Turkey's bid could also be derailed by anti-government protests that rocked the country in June. The Turkish government's heavy-handed response left at least five dead and thousands injured during three weeks of clashes between police and protesters, earning Ankara a strong rebuke from its Western allies.
Sports Minister Suat Kilic brushed aside concerns that the recent unrest would harm Istanbul's Olympic chances, but added: "It would be much better if we had not experienced this. We had two years without any problems."
With reports from Reuters, AP and AFP