Around 6.30pm Danish time on Friday night, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, will open an envelope, take out a card and with due ceremony read out the name of the city that has won the right to stage the Olympics in 2016.
Mr Rogge’s brief utterance in Copenhagen’s Bella Centre will spark scenes of unbridled, near-hysterical joy among the assembled gathering who represent the winning city. For the losers, it may feel like a death in the family.
Although the occasion may not come anywhere near matching the excitement and drama of Usain Bolt winning the Olympic 100m in Beijing last year, for the Olympic movement it is no less significant.
It is the climax of a three-year campaign by the competing cities to demonstrate that they have what it takes to stage the 17-day summer games, a competition that has gained intensity each time the IOC sets it in motion and which demands each bidding city spend millions of dollars and put together vast teams just to put its bid together.
Even without the presence of four heads of state, including for the first time a serving US president, a king and numerous Olympians, all to lend weight to the final pitches of their cities, the outcome of the IOC vote would dominate the news around the world.
The IOC claims just over 1bn people watched Mr Rogge proclaim London the winner of the 2012 race four years ago. Given that this race will grab the attention of the big populations of the US, Japan and Brazil, it expects an even higher figure on Friday night.
Small wonder then that Mr Rogge and the IOC prefer the drama of a climactic coming together of IOC members and bidding cities for a final act of persuasion to a prosaic e-mail or postal vote of members.
Hosting the Olympics used to be a folly the globe’s more sensible big cities left for others. Since Montreal incurred crippling debts for staging the 1976 event, several host cities have struggled to match the IOC’s exalted demands for pristine facilities with the resources needed to deliver them.
The need to complete construction work by the fixed deadline of the opening played havoc with Athens’ preparations for the 2004 Olympics, sending its costs spiralling, while many newly-built Olympic stadia have become costly white elephants.
The 2016 bidders – Chicago, Rio, Madrid and Tokyo – were not remotely put off by the trail of previous host city crises. Chicagoans initially blanched at the potential tax bill for cost overruns but were persuaded to focus on the upsides.
The recession may have altered Vancouver’s and London’s funding plans for the 2010 and 2012 games respectively but the impact has been limited and has prompted none of the 2016 bidders to redraft business plans.
Certainly, the IOC sees no need to temper its ambitions because of the global downturn. Mr Rogge argues that the seven-year preparation time for the chosen host city should allow it to ride the peaks and troughs of economic cycles.
Financially, the IOC is healthy, boosted by increasing values of its broadcast deals, although the desire this summer of the US Olympic Committee to launch its own Olympic channel, postponed for now so as not to hinder Chicago’s chances, will concern the IOC hierarchy, based in Lausanne.
The evidence of recent IOC sponsorship renewals suggests that corporations continue to place a premium on the value of associating their brands with the Olympics. Omega, the watchmaker, has just extended its Olympic sponsorship until 2020. Coca-Cola has also extended its sponsorship until then, while Atos Origin, Panasonic and Samsung are signed up until 2016.
“It goes beyond the short-term,” says Giles Morgan, head of sponsorship at HSBC, not an Olympic sponsor. “The Olympics is about long-termism. It is a very special brand, the most recognisable symbol in the world.”
The strength of the Olympics is matched by the quality of bids. In previous host contests, the quality of some shortlisted cities failed to match the required standard. This time around, the IOC membership agrees each bid is compelling and that technically they are hard to tell apart.
There are those who believe London won four years ago when the vote was held in Singapore because of the power of its last-day presentation to IOC members. Others in Copenhagen say the IOC is strong enough to return to its ambitious programme of expanding the brand globally and in emerging countries – achieved last year by taking the event to China – and award the Olympics for the first time to a South American city.
The contest has seen the bidders pander to the IOC values of fair play and unity. There are different emphases by some bidders on the engagement of young people, environmental concerns and legacy.
However, bidding to host the Olympics has become an industry, with global PR firms offering cities their Olympics lobbying know-how.
For athletes, the Olympic spirit continues to prize participation above winning. Nothing could be further from the truth in Friday night’s race.
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