The field of candidates for the 2020 Summer Olympics could be reduced from five to three, with Doha and Baku in danger of missing the cut.
Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid look certain to make the list when the International Olympic Committee executive board announces the group of finalists on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET in Quebec City.
Whether the IOC keeps all five cities or pares the list to four or three remains the issue, a tricky choice at a time of global economic and political uncertainty.
"Risk is part of the assessment — political risk, economic risk," IOC board member Denis Oswald said Tuesday.
Madrid is bidding for a third consecutive time, Tokyo a second time in a row and Istanbul a fifth time overall.
Doha, capital of the Gulf state of Qatar, and Baku, capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, are back after failing to make the shortlist for the 2016 Games and face the most scrutiny again.
The cities selected Wednesday will go forward to the final phase, a 17-month race that will end with a secret vote by the full IOC in Buenos Aires in September 2013.
The 15-member executive board, headed by IOC President Jacques Rogge, will choose the finalists after examining a technical evaluation report compiled by a panel of Olympic experts.
IOC Vice-President Thomas Bach called it "the most difficult decision we have ever had to take with regard to a shortlist."
The dynamics of the race changed dramatically when Rome, considered a potential 2020 favourite, pulled out of the bidding in February after the Italian government declined to provide financial guarantees at a time of economic austerity.
If there is a cut Wednesday, Baku is expected to be eliminated first. If the IOC decides to keep four cities, Doha would be safe. If it's three finalists, Doha would likely be dropped.
Baku is seen as lacking in experience in hosting international sports events and officials believe it's too soon for the city to be considered a viable contender.
Questions over heat
Qatar is already hosting the 2022 World Cup, but faces questions over the heat, the timing and other issues for the Olympics. The IOC agreed to let Doha bid based on Qatar's proposal to hold the games from Oct. 2-18 to avoid the brutal summer heat, but officials remains concerned about the weather, conditions for athletes and potential conflicts with television and other sports events going on during that time of year.
Doha, saying it's bidding for the entire Middle East, insists it has the backing of international sports federations for its October proposal.
"We have done all that was requested from the international federations and the IOC," Qatar Olympic Committee secretary general Saoud Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said Tuesday. "We have communicated with them. We are confident that we fulfil all the requirements. We just have to wait for their decision."
Madrid is bidding against the backdrop of Spain's financial crisis, something the IOC said it will take into account.
Madrid bid leader Alejandro Blanco said the city would go the distance until the vote in Buenos Aires, brushing off suggestions that it could drop out as "rumours" spread by rivals. He insisted the Spanish government fully backs the project and said the games would be a catalyst for economic recovery.
"The economy is not a problem only for Madrid," Blanco said. "The crisis is global. History shows it's impossible to always be in a peak economic situation. There are always ups and downs. We are talking about 2020. Things can only go up."
Tokyo is bidding in the aftermath of last year's earthquake and tsunami disaster.
"We need something to lift up the country," said Tsunekazu Takeda, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee. "The games will help re-energize the people."
Istanbul bid official Hasan Arat insisted the Olympics is Turkey's main priority. The country is also bidding for football's 2020 European Championship, but the IOC has said Turkey can't do both.
"For Turkey, hosting the games has always been the ultimate prize," Arat said. "Every level of government is right behind us. ... Turkey has never been more serious about hosting the games, and we have never been more ready to host the games."