The world may be increasingly unstable, riven by economic woes and political upheaval. Yet still they come. Perhaps not in such great numbers as when the global economy was soaring to new heights, Read More
but they come all the same: the world's great cities and their leaders, lining up in a beauty pageant to secure the event that has become all things to all people – a panacea that can distract from a country's woes or underline their ambition on a global scale.
At the International Olympic Committee's session in Buenos Aires next weekend, protests and turmoil will seem a world away amid the polite protocol and arcane traditions of the body that will bestow the gift of the 2020 Olympics on Madrid, Istanbul or Tokyo.
The first is still in the grip of economic meltdown, the second made global headlines as the centre of political revolt in Taksim Square and the third has convinced many of the 104 voting IOC members that it can host the Games, but has much work to do persuading them why.
The six candidates to replace Jacques Rogge as the IOC president and arguably the most important person in world sport, in a vote that will also be decided in Buenos Aires, have lined up to argue that the costs of bidding for and staging the Olympic Games must come down. Yet there appears no sign of the bidding circus and the media frenzy that surrounds it being reduced in scale.
The swisher hotels of the Argentinian capital will this week hum to the sound of fevered speculation and last-minute lobbying as the three cities hone their final presentations before Saturday's vote.
The IOC instigated stringent rules in the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal, which tend to place greater importance on the inspection reports compiled by a team led by the British IOC executive board member Sir Craig Reedie.
Yet those same reports leave plenty of room for interpretation and, in 2005 and 2009, it was a late drive by a bid that did not begin as favourite but was able to time a last-ditch lobbying push to make a compelling emotional as well as logistical case that came through to win.
In 2005 in Singapore Lord Coe and Tony Blair helped London to victory with their stirring legacy pledges. Four years later in Copenhagen Rio swayed the IOC members with promises of beach volleyball on Copacabana and the bald fact that the Games had never been held in South America.
The shortlist may not be as long as in previous years – ambitious but flawed bids from Doha and Baku were chopped at an earlier stage and Rome bowed out as Italy's economic woes deepened – but the competition is as keen as ever. The success of the 2012 London Games was a huge relief for the IOC, as the lavish tributes paid by the various presidential candidates have made clear.
Dr CK Wu, the sometimes controversial president of the Association of International Boxing Associations, said London was "probably the most successful Olympic Games in history", adding: "The public support for the sport was so impressive. You have left a legacy in so many ways." Sergey Bubka, the International Association of Athletics Federations vice-president who is also standing, said it was "unforgettable". The Singaporean IOC vice-president Ng Ser Miang called the 2012 edition a "huge success".
The legacy rhetoric has allowed the government and the organisers, on the back of sometimes fairly flimsy figures, to declare that the Olympics were not only a success on their own terms but delivered long-lasting reputational and economic benefits.
In some ways London 2012 rebooted the Olympic movement after the money-no-object spectacle of Beijing, making governments around the world gaze longingly at the feelgood fillip it provided to a country suffering economically and the extent to which it effectively rebranded London and the UK.
The arguments about whether the £8.7bn in public money spent on the Games represented value for money, and indeed whether the true number was in fact far higher, will go on and on. But in the eyes of those who made the bid promises, it was an unalloyed success.
Paradoxically, the idea of hosting major sporting events is in some ways more attractive to governments in difficult times – providing they can convince an often sceptical public that the outlay on infrastructure is worthwhile – because they deal in the rare and precious commodities of hope and optimism.
"There are many reasons why people want to organise the Games. But there is one common denominator," says Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, the son of the former IOC president and an IOC member who is a pivotal figure in the Madrid delegation. "It is the utmost party of youth, it is the best phenomenon in the world nowadays that delivers inspiration for the youth. It means good news, it means healthy competition, the youth of the world coming together." Samaranch's Madrid bid started as an outsider but has gathered momentum and support in recent months and is now a contender. "All of that represents much more than money, much more than investment, new stadia or new airports. It is a dream. It is such good news in a world that has so little good news to offer."
Madrid offers what it calls "a new vision" for the Olympic movement. By promising to hold the Games largely in existing venues and with clever use of temporary ones, it insists the Spanish capital can deliver them at a fraction of the cost. "That's the feeling we have, momentum wise," Samaranch added. "It feels everything is clicking together. We've put together a very solid bid and we are very happy. We are proud and confident. When you are bidding, you need many things. But there are two key things: you have to prove what differential you can offer to the Olympic movement and why it is important to you.".
"On the first, we believe that in the world today we can't afford the vast expense of previous Olympic Games. I don't think there is anyone now who thinks the Games are about big investment programmes."
Istanbul, by contrast, is more in the Rio mould: an expansive, ambitious vision that promises to unite east and west on the banks of the Bosphorus. It was making real headway until the wall-to-wall live coverage of the Taksim Square protests stopped it in its tracks.
Tokyo, meanwhile, stands somewhere between the two. The bookmakers' favourite, it ticks all the boxes in terms of infrastructure and facilities but must convince IOC members it can pack an emotional punch and improve its reputation for dour presentations – explain the "why" as well as the "how".
There does seem to be a genuine push within the IOC hierarchy to find ways of reducing the costs of the summer Games, even as they search for new events and responsibilities elsewhere to expand their remit.
It has become a key debating point in a presidential race that began with the German Thomas Bach as favourite but in which he faces a tough challenge from the 64-year old Singaporean Ng, who has the advantage of representing the view that the IOC should look beyond Europe for its leader for the first time.
Wu said: "To reduce the costs is very important. With the economy as it is, who can guarantee that in future cities will be able to afford to hold a Games like this. My proposal is to make 50% of the venues temporary. After the Games, they can be dismantled and shipped to the next Olympic Games to be used."
And yet even while the candidates pursue their austerity manifestos to match the times, the three 2020 bidders will leave no stone unturned and no expense spared in their efforts to secure the self-styled greatest sporting show on earth.