Tokyo, Istanbul or Madrid: Who Will Host the 2020 Summer Olympics?

Never mind London and forget about Rio: Which city will win the bid for the 2020 Games?

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Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

People cheer as Japan's national women's soccer team wearing their silver medals wave atop an open-top bus parade through Japan's Ginza shopping district in Tokyo on Aug. 20, 2012. Japan held its first Olympic parade on the streets of Tokyo for its' returning medalists in the London 2012 Olympic Games as the city eyes hosting the games of 2020.

As soon as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, reluctantly handed the Olympic flag over to Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), at the closing ceremony of the London Games, the countdown to Rio 2016 was on. But beyond Brazil, another, much more suspenseful Olympic race is brewing: who will win the right to host the 2020 Games?

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On September 7, 2013, in Buenos Aires, Argentina,  Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid will learn which of the three cities’ bids was enticing enough to convince the IOC to let it host the greatest show on earth. (Both Baku and Doha had to suffer the fate of being non-selected applicant cities, whereas the Italian government withdrew Rome’s bid due to the country’s perilous economic situation). The smart money is on Tokyo, but the Olympics have never been easy to predict. TIME looks at the pros, cons and odds of the three locations.

TOKYO (6/5 odds)

The British bookmakers have installed the Japanese capital as the favorite to host the Games and the reasons do appear compelling, even though this is the second Olympics in a row in which they’re bidding (the Olympics were also held there in 1964). “I think Tokyo is a pretty safe bet,” says Stefan Szymanski, the Stephen J. Galetti Professor of Sport Management, in the department of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan (the full audio of the interview is below). “You can trust the Japanese to get everything on time and to budget. You can be sure they will run an efficient, safe Games and there will be no risks involved. You can be sure all the technology’s going to work. So I think it’s big pluses on those fronts.”

Japan is currently basking in a post-Olympic glow, much like Great Britain. The Japanese had a medal haul in London unlike any other in their history, winning 38 medals, which put them in sixth place in the standings, if you go on the total amount of medals. Half a million people are estimated to have packed downtown Tokyo to welcome back the athletes, but reservations remain. “I remember the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 was one of the most beautiful Olympics ever,” writes veteran Japanese sports journalist Kozo Abe in an email to TIME. “At that time we Japanese really needed to stage the Olympics to recover the national pride after World War II. Compared from that time, we don’t have an urgent need to stage the Tokyo Olympics now.” And Professor Szymanski sees two issues: The first is “a relatively low level of support, only 66% in favor, but that’s well behind their rivals. The IOC only wants to go places where they will be welcomed with adulation. And then the other problem is rather more imponderable: because of the earthquake last year, questions are being raised about the energy future of Tokyo.”

But the feeling persists that it’s still Tokyo’s bid to lose, if only because it might be considered Asia’s turn to host the 2020 Games. “A very coherent, sensible bid,” argues Szymanski. “And in terms of the politics, Asia would be a good place to hold the Games this time. I think having had the Games in London this time, I think Istanbul and Madrid will be seen as European bids. I think that puts Tokyo at an advantage and the others at a disadvantage.”

And Abe believes that the awarding of the Games to Tokyo is important for its people: “Japan is still poor in its economy and politicians are unreliable, and we have so many difficult issues with Korea and China. We need something that makes our nation together again for some good reason. That must be Tokyo Olympics 2020.”

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Could Istanbul pull off a shock and be the third Olympics in a row to be awarded to a city not considered the front-runner? Both Paris and Chicago were perceived to be more likely choices than eventual winners London and Rio and all involved with the Turkish bid will be hoping it’s fifth time lucky for a city yet to host the event.

“Should Istanbul be the winner, for the first time the Olympics will be held by a country in the Turkic and Islamic world,” said Youth and Sports Minister Suat Kilic. According to Szymanski, Istanbul offers the highest amount of support within any of the three nations – 87% – and the fact that Turkey is a “newly growing economy … might generate some sympathy from other IOC members, who might say ‘it’s their turn,’ rather in the way South Africa got the 2010 World Cup.”

But Istanbul’s main stumbling block could  be  in not receiving full support from the IOC’s executive board. According to the Associated Press, an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the board voted unanimously in favor of Tokyo and Madrid at 12-0 whereas Istanbul got an 11-1. Szymanski thinks they also have another problem, which is sports-related: Istanbul is in the running to host the 2020 European soccer championships. “That really is quite foolish seeing as it’s enough of a challenge to host the Summer Games, it’s really absurd to think they would want to do that and, in the same year, host the second biggest football tournament in the world,” he says. “It almost suggests they believe they’re not going to get the Summer Games and this is their reserve strategy. I think that’s a big mistake and I think that will count heavily against them.”

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MADRID (3/1)

The Spanish capital is bidding for a third consecutive time and, according to Szymanski, the Madrid bid is “potentially the lowest cost: they claim to have 78% of the venues built so not surprisingly they come out with a relatively small budget of just $2.4 billion … that really would be value for money. If you could do that, you would end up saying the Olympics was worthwhile in cost benefit terms rather than the economic drain it historically has been.”

But as Szymanski, and everyone else on the planet is aware, “you’d have to be blind not to know that Spain has serious economic problems.” Moreover, “unlike perhaps the Japanese energy problems, the economic crisis in Spain is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future so the debt overhang is going to be huge.”

Yet the locals remain optimistic. Gildo Seisdedos, a professor at the IE Business School in Madrid, says, “I think it’s time for Madrid. The 2016 bid was not the right time to do it in terms of Olympic politics, but now I think Madrid is quite a good option in terms of solidity as most of the venues are already done and it’s a good European option.”

But economic crisis notwithstanding, it would be hard to argue against the logic that it makes more sense to look outside of  Europe due to London hosting the most recent Games. It’s clear that Tokyo remains in the driver’s seat, but the allure of Istanbul’s bid may end up resulting in yet another IOC surprise.

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