The race for the 2020 Olympics will come down to a contest between Madrid, Tokyo and Istanbul after the IOC trimmed the field Wednesday, once again rejecting Doha's bid to take the games to tiny Qatar.
Doha and Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, were eliminated as the International Olympic Committee settled on a shortlist of three finalists. Both cities also failed to make the cut for the 2016 Games.
Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul — all former bidders — now advance to the final phase, a 17-month race that will end with the IOC vote on Sept. 7, 2013, in Buenos Aires.
The executive board, chaired by IOC president Jacques Rogge, chose the finalists after examining a technical evaluation report compiled by a panel of Olympic experts. The board then voted on each candidate.
An official familiar with details of the selection told The Associated Press the board voted unanimously in favour of Tokyo and Madrid at 12-0 and supported Istanbul by 11-1. The vote was 0-12 for Baku and 3-9 for Doha, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the totals are not being made public.
While football governing body FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the IOC isn't convinced the Gulf state is equipped for the Olympics.
"This is a much more complex undertaking than a World Cup and maybe they should do that first," IOC board member and finance commission chairman Richard Carrion said.
Qatari officials expressed disappointment but vowed to bid again.
"I think it's a missed opportunity for the IOC," Doha bid leader Noora Al-Mannai said. "This opportunity for 2020 has gone. There is nothing we can do. However, we don't give up. I promise you we will be back."
Azerbaijan Sports Minister Azad Rahimov said Baku would also return.
"I can assure you that we will listen and learn from the feedback that the IOC has offered us and then we will come back again next time even stronger," he said.
Madrid is bidding for a third consecutive time, Tokyo a second time in a row and Istanbul a fifth time overall.
Tokyo, which hosted the 1964 Olympics, received the highest praise in the IOC report, which said the Japanese bid presents "a very strong application." Madrid has a "strong application," while Istanbul's project "offers good potential," the report said.
The IOC report said Baku's bid had a "number of weaknesses," including a lack of experience in hosting international sports events and a need for vast amount of infrastructure. For Qatar, the IOC cited a series of risks and challenges, notably over the proposal to hold the games in October to avoid the brutal summer heat.
The IOC had agreed to let Doha bid based on Qatar's proposal to hold the games from Oct. 2-18, but officials remained concerned about the weather and conflicts with television and other sports events going on during that time of year.
The IOC report also cited budget costs for Doha that would be "significantly higher than any recent host city."
IOC members privately were determined not to risk any ethics controversies in the wake of corruption allegations that shadowed FIFA's World Cup decision. But Swiss board member Denis Oswald insisted political reasons were not behind Doha's rejection.
"It's not at all a political decision, not at all," he said. "It's really technical considerations. We want to control costs and not escalate. There are also many issues with the dates, high temperatures, problems for television."
Asked whether Qatar would never be in position to win the games because October is the only feasible timeframe, Oswald said: "Sometimes, life is not fair."
The dynamics of the 2020 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.
With Madrid bidding against the backdrop of Spain's financial crisis, the IOC report said "careful attention would need to be paid to Spain's economic outlook." It said a large number of venues and infrastructure already exists, helping to "mitigate risk."
Madrid bid leaders said the Olympics could serve as a catalyst for economic recovery.
"We need to do this," said Spanish IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., son of the late former IOC president. "It's good for our country. It gives a lot of hope and energy and stamina to a very much needed part of the world, southern Europe, at this stage. The IOC could do a great contribution to the recovery."
Tokyo is bidding in the aftermath of last year's disastrous earthquake and tsunami.
Hosting the Olympics "will serve as a symbol of Japan's recovery from last year's tragedy," Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in a message following Tokyo's selection to the shortlist.
The Istanbul bid had been knocked off course by Turkey's concurrent bid for soccer's 2020 European Championship. The IOC has made clear that Turkey cannot hold both events.
"The working group feels that for a city to organize two major sports events in the same year, and within a period of three months, presents significant risks," the report said.
Istanbul gained breathing room last week when UEFA extended the bidding process for the Euros and scheduled the final decision for early 2014.
While this is Istanbul's fifth bid, it's the first time the city has made the shortlist based on the recommendation of the IOC working group.
"This time, Istanbul is ready to deliver," senior bid official Hasan Arat said.