2020 race takes shape

For two weeks in the summer of 2004, Olympic Park in Athens seemed like the center of the world. Now the park is mostly empty, the buildings and the flies together under the Greek sun. Authorities in Italy built a new bobsled run for the 2006 Winter Games up in the mountains near Torino. Now that track, which cost $100 million to build, $2 million annually to operate, is due to be torn down.

In 2008, the Bird's Nest in Beijing was where Usain Bolt burst to worldwide fame. Now the stadium draws the occasional tourist or two. It's a long time until its next meaningful date, the 2015 world track and field world championships.

The International Olympic Committee likes to talk about legacy, the notion that venues built for a Games will have utility afterward. It costs tens of millions of dollars to bid, billions to then get ready. The race for the 2020 Summer Games, which formally hit the start line Tuesday, highlights that notion even as it underscores the dramatic choice facing the IOC.

Like perhaps never before.

The IOC will choose Sept. 7 at a meeting in Buenos Aires from among three cities: Madrid, Tokyo and Istanbul.

At this early stage, it is far too premature to declare any a favorite. All three cities have upsides. All three have flaws.

It's laughable, even, to note the odds from the British bookmaker William Hill: Tokyo the 4-6 favorite, Istanbul at 5-2 and Madrid at 3-1. Based on -- what?

Tokyo barely made it out of the first round in voting for 2016. Madrid, if anyone at William Hill wants to look it up, finished second to Rio de Janeiro; moreover, Madrid was essentially one vote shy of making it into the final round of voting for 2012.

Tokyo's 2020 bid is likely to draw rave technical reviews from the IOC. It did in 2016.

This 2020 Tokyo bid was launched to remind the world, in the wake of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, that the country is not only safe and welcoming but open for business.

Istanbul is in many ways the most intriguing choice. It represents the IOC's recent expansionist turn.

One must always, however, remember that the IOC is an institution historically dominated by European interests. The only traditionally European city in the race is -- Madrid. The only major European capital never to have hosted the Games is -- Madrid.

The IOC works on personalities and relationships. Last summer, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. -- who will be playing a key role in Madrid's campaign -- stormed to a powerful win for an IOC executive board seat.

Just last month, the Olympic committee in Panama held successful elections, ending a nearly five-year power struggle. Who helped them get there? Alejandro Blanco, the president of the Spanish Olympic Committee and the Madrid 2020 bid.

In 2003, the IOC commissioned a report -- led by Canadian member Dick Pound -- that among other matters, urged caution and restraint in the building of Games venues.

Indeed, the report begins with a quote from the founder of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, decrying the "often exaggerated expenses" incurred in readying for the Games, a "sizable part of which represented the construction of permanent buildings, which were moreover unnecessary."

That was in 1911.

Since that 2003 report, which the full membership adopted, the IOC has nonetheless gone on to endorse mega-projects.

To be clear: The IOC avows one thing. And then it goes and does the other. The issue is when -- if ever -- the IOC is going to get serious about what it says it's serious about.

Because the warning signs are there. Rome pulled out of this 2020 race last February, saying it was too expensive -- in its case, $12.5 billion -- to play.

London's 2012 Games ran to more than $14 billion in public funding.

Sochi for 2014? The Russians started from scratch in transforming a Black Sea summer resort into a Winter Games destination. Who knows how much it will cost? Public accounting -- in Russia? Really?

Rio de Janeiro for 2016? Billions. Stay tuned. Last month, the IOC cautioned that "time is ticking" and the Brazilians have to move "with all vigor." Does anyone think that moving vigorously under deadline pressure is now going to cost less money than more?

Pyeongchang for 2018 represents the IOC's latest move into "new horizons," the Koreans' brilliant tagline. The Koreans also budgeted -- this was figured in 2010 dollars -- $6.3 billion for capital improvements tied to the Olympics.

Now the 2020 numbers:

In 2012 dollars, Istanbul's infrastructure and public services budget for 2020 totals $19.2 billion.

Tokyo's capital improvements budget: $4.7 billion. Of that, $1.47 billion is marked for a wholesale renovation of  Olympic Stadium, which would also be ready for the 2019 rugby World Cup.

Madrid: a mere $1.9 billion. Most of its infrastructure is already in place. What a concept.

The Turkish strategy is transparently in line with what the IOC has been doing in recent elections. Simply put,  it's go big or go home, and the Turkish economy, which has been booming, right now can absolutely can handle $19.2 billion. Or more.

With Istanbul, meanwhile, there's not only a double but a triple play at work. The IOC could not only go to a Muslim county for the first time; by doing so, it would take Doha out of the bid game for probably 20 years. The IOC -- looking at soccer's World Cup there in 2022 -- has been, shall we say, skeptical of the impact Qatari money might have if Doha were allowed as a full-on candidate, cutting it early from the 2016 and 2020 IOC races.

So is it a slam dunk for Istanbul?


The ongoing violence in Syria -- which borders Turkey -- remains a serious IOC concern. Moreover, already there's noteworthy talk about Istanbul's traffic and other "technical" problems. In that vein, there was this Twitter post last month at the short-course world championships from U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy:  "Good job Turkey for hanging our flag backwards in every medal ceremony. And for filling the stands for 1 night of world champs!"

So it's Tokyo, right?

Everyone who counts within the Olympic movement is clear that Tokyo and Japan would put on well-run Games. Not the issue. Tokyo is a cool city, too. So that's not it.

And neither is the risk of an earthquake in Tokyo, despite questions from some Tuesday. That's just silly.

The Games are going to be in Korea in 2018. China is suddenly making noise about the Winter Games in 2022. Does the IOC want to go back to that part of the world again in 2020?

Also, and of perhaps more significance: the IOC wants to feel welcomed. Like, really wanted. A recent poll by Tokyo organizers fixed public support at 67 percent. That was behind Madrid and Istanbul. An IOC poll last year put it at 47 percent -- and 47 percent is not going to get it done. Neither, frankly, is 67 percent.

So -- it has to be Madrid?

Who wouldn't want to spend 17 days in Madrid? The food. The museums. The street life.

That, though, is actually one of the challenges: the IOC moves now increasingly -- sometimes almost exclusively -- in English, and the Madrid team's strength is still mostly in Spanish.

And for a country beset by an unemployment rate of one in four, the natural play in handing over the bid book this week at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, would have been to have had on hand a charismatic player in finance, the same way Brazil's central banker played an outsized role in Rio's winning 2009 bid.

He or she could have pointed out, after all, that the Madrid campaign -- with only $1.9 billion in capital costs -- is precisely in line with the strategy the IOC has said since 2003 it wants to enforce. At least in theory.

Madrid sent a team of nine to Lausanne. But not one such individual.

It's a long, long road from January until September in Buenos Aires. The IOC evaluation visits take place in March -- Tokyo first, then Madrid, then Istanbul. In July, at a meeting in Lausanne, the IOC will hold an all-members briefing to review the three files.

By then, perhaps, someone else will have noted that $19.2 billion is slightly more than 10 times $1.9 billion. The question is not whether it matters. It does. It's whether that's a good thing, or not.