Seven months before the vote, the International Olympic Committee is sending a panel of experts on a series of site-inspection visits that could prove influential in the race to host the 2020 Summer Games.
The IOC's evaluation commission is heading to Japan this week on the first leg of its three-city tour to examine the bids from Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul — a key phase in assessing the pros and cons of the multi-billion dollar projects.
Chaired by IOC vice-president Craig Reedie of Britain, the 14-member panel will meet in each city with bid leaders, visit proposed venues and hone in on issues such as finances, accommodations, transportation, security and public support.
The commission will later compile a detailed technical report that will be submitted to the 100-plus IOC members who will select the host city by secret ballot on Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"The interesting thing about this one is that all three have been candidates before on a number of occasions," Reedie said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press before flying to Tokyo on Thursday.
Istanbul is bidding again after four unsuccessful attempts, Madrid is back for a third time in a row and Tokyo for a second consecutive time. Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics and Spain held the games in Barcelona in 1992. Istanbul is seeking to bring the games to a new region and to a predominantly Muslim nation for the first time.
The IOC visits come with all three countries facing serious political or economic challenges.
"The whole evaluation process … is in some ways a risk assessment," Reedie said. "If this commission sees there are risks in these cities, they will record that in an intelligent way in the report."
Spain is still in a deep recession with 25 per cent unemployment, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been fending off allegations that he received money from a slush fund. Japan is trying to revive a stagnant economy and is engaged in a potentially volatile territorial dispute with China over uninhabited islands. Turkey is dealing with the spillover of the civil war in neighbouring Syria, and the U.S. Embassy in Ankara was hit by a suicide bombing on Feb. 1. that killed the attacker and a Turkish security guard.
At a time of continuing economic hardship around the world, financial issues will be examined closely by the IOC panel.
Istanbul, with the most to build, has a budget of $19.2 billion for infrastructure, compared to $4.9 billion for Tokyo and $1.9 billion for Madrid.
"Everybody's budget is very carefully prepared now, frequently by external experts," Reedie said. "I've clearly looked at them all. We take with us an Olympic budget finance expert on the commission who goes into it in greater detail."
'Resist personal opinions'
The commission's working meetings in Tokyo run from next Monday through Thursday. The panel will then visit Madrid from March 18-21 and Istanbul from March 24-27.
The panel's report will be written by the end of April and submitted to IOC members ahead of a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, in early July where the bid cities will make technical presentations and take questions.
As in the past, the report will not rank the cities, providing mainly factual information and data to let the voting members make up their own minds in Buenos Aires.
"What we're supposed to do and will do is give them as much detailed information on the candidate cities as we can," Reedie said. "There is a narrow line between technical fact and personal opinion. As individual members, we would want to resist personal opinions. We want to make sure this is the whole view."
How much difference the technical report will make in the end is uncertain. IOC votes are invariably swung by other factors, including politics, sentiment, geography, personal friendships and other intangibles.
"Those are the responsibilities of the individual members, but it's much better that they make those decisions when they have all the facts put before them in a proper and balanced manner," Reedie said.
'Aware of opposition groups'
Missing from the evaluation panel will be IOC sports director Christophe Dubi. Reedie said Dubi was asked to remain at IOC headquarters in Lausanne to work on the Olympic sports program, a decision made in the wake of the IOC executive board's decision to cut wrestling from the list for 2020.
Wrestling has a high profile in Japan and Turkey and both countries would want the sport on the program if they get the Games.
Reedie said his panel would be willing to meet with opposition groups during the visits if time permits and the requests are made through the bid committees. The Tokyo bid has been targeted by animal rights activists opposed to dolphin hunting and critics of the government's decision to scrap a tuition-waiver program for 10 pro-North Korea high schools.
"The commission over the years have been aware of opposition groups and there have been occasions when they've met representatives," Reedie said. "If it happens again, I'm sure we'll do just that. If the bid committee wishes we do so, then I'm sure we would meet them."
Reedie said the evaluation visits give the cities a chance to promote their bids in their own countries, citing the IOC visit to London in 2005 as a key moment in the British capital's winning bid for the 2012 Olympics.
"It was a seminal moment in terms of encouraging a slightly skeptical British media that this was serious and this was good," he said. "If we can do that in Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul, we serve the Olympic movement and the ambitions of these cities."