Rarely, if ever, has so much been on the line at a single Olympic meeting.
When International Olympic Committee members gather in Buenos Aires, Argentina, they will be faced with three decisions that will shape the direction of the Olympic movement for the next decade.
At stake: Choosing the host city of the 2020 Olympics, electing a new IOC president to succeed Jacques Rogge and selecting one sport to add to the 2020 program.
The favorites: Tokyo, Thomas Bach and wrestling.
Prime ministers, royalty, sports stars and celebrities will be part of the election extravaganza at the IOC session. The weeklong meetings will have the flavor of a political carnival replete with last-minute campaigning, backstage vote-chasing and round-the-clock lobbying by spin doctors, consultants and strategists.
While most IOC members are primarily interested in the Sept. 10 presidential election, the first big vote comes on Sept. 7 with a secret ballot on the 2020 host city.
It’s a three-way contest between Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul.
All three are repeat candidates: Istanbul is making its fifth overall bid, Madrid a third straight attempt and Tokyo a second try in a row.
Tokyo has been seen as a slight front-runner, though the leak of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant is causing concern. Madrid – once counted out because of Spain’s economic crisis — has picked up momentum recently and now looks like a legitimate challenger. Istanbul has slipped following the anti-government protests and doping scandals in Turkey and the escalating war in neighboring Syria.
With each bid facing political, economic or other drawbacks, the winner could be determined not for its positive attributes but for having fewer weaknesses than its rivals.
“There’s no obvious choice,’’ senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told The Associated Press. “Where do you go? None of the three is risk free. Probably somebody ends up backing into it this time.’’
Each city offers a different narrative. Istanbul would bring the games to a new part of the world, to a predominantly Muslim country for the first time, to a city linking Europe and Asia. Madrid has most of the venues ready and would spend the least. Tokyo offers safety and reliability at a time of global uncertainty.
In the end, the decision could center on which city offers the least risk. After taking gambles by sending the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, Russia, and 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro, some members feel it’s time to opt for certainty. Delays in Rio are causing serious concerns and the IOC is eager to avoid more headaches.
“We’re looking for the city which we can look toward to be the most secure option at this stage, given global uncertainties and the fact that we’re entering into a new era with a new presidency,’’ longtime Australian IOC member Kevan Gosper said. “We’re looking for a safe pair of hands.’’
That sentiment works in favor of Tokyo, which hosted the games in 1964 and has repeatedly played up its case as being the “safe’’ choice. Tokyo also received the best overall review in an IOC technical report this summer.
“Of course we know how serious the Japanese are and we know they would deliver what they propose for sure,’’ Swiss IOC member and presidential candidate Denis Oswald said.
The last few days and hours of the campaign could be vital. The final presentations on the day of the decision could swing a few votes that decide the outcome.