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A general view of the construction of soccer club Besiktas' Inonu Stadium is seen in Istanbul September 1, 2013. Along the picturesque Bosphorus Straits dividing Europe and Asia, Istanbul is undergoing a transformation which should fill Turkey with confidence in its bid to become the first Muslim country to stage the Olympics in 2020. Overlooking the waterway, mechanical diggers are tearing down Besiktas' Inonu Stadium to make way for a state-of-the-art facility earmarked to stage rugby in 2020, and to the north construction of the city's third suspension bridge is underway. (OSMAN ORSAL/Reuters)
A general view of the construction of soccer club Besiktas' Inonu Stadium is seen in Istanbul September 1, 2013. Along the picturesque Bosphorus Straits dividing Europe and Asia, Istanbul is undergoing a transformation which should fill Turkey with confidence in its bid to become the first Muslim country to stage the Olympics in 2020. Overlooking the waterway, mechanical diggers are tearing down Besiktas' Inonu Stadium to make way for a state-of-the-art facility earmarked to stage rugby in 2020, and to the north construction of the city's third suspension bridge is underway. (OSMAN ORSAL/Reuters)

Olympic bid cities have distinctive pitches, but all have drawbacks Add to ...

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.

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