The International Olympic Committee (IOC) convenes in Copenhagen on Oct. 2 to choose the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and for the finalists Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Chicago and Tokyo its decision marks the culmination of a journey of more than two years. They've already weathered both regional selection competitions and IOC evaluations that weeded out three earlier candidates (sorry, Doha, Prague and Baku, Azerbaijan). But for these four cities, the final step in winning the Games is surviving an unusual voting process that in the past has produced surprising upsets and been shaken by corruption.
Before voting begins, each city will get the chance to make a final one-hour pitch that's a combination of speeches, video and celebrity endorsements. Voting is done by secret ballot and continues until one city receives a majority of the votes. The IOC has 105 voting members, but those who hail from a potential host country can't vote until that city is eliminated from contention. If no city has a majority at the end of each round of voting, the city with the lowest tally is eliminated and voting continues to another round.
The format produces surprises, but no city has felt the sting more than Pyeongchang, South Korea. Pyeongchang's bids for both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics were thought to be the favorites of the committee, and in each case, the small city of about 46,000 people led after the first round of voting. But both times, when the third-place city was eliminated, its backers supported competing bids. As a result, Pyeongchang lost two nail biters, surrendering the 2010 Games to Vancouver by three votes and losing out on the 2014 Games to Sochi, Russia, by four votes. Being the favorite, as Pyeongchang knows, is never a guarantee of success. Sydney trumped front runner Beijing to earn the 2000 Games, and Atlanta beat the favored Athens bid four years earlier.
The upsets have been accompanied by periodic allegations of corruption. When Atlanta earned the 1996 Games, many thought it was through the intervention of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, one of the largest Olympic sponsors. Such conspiracy theories generally don't progress beyond whispers, but the 2002 Winter Olympics were an exception. Ten members of the IOC were thrown out after taking gifts from the Salt Lake Bid Committee prior to the vote, which Salt Lake City went on to win. The U.S. Department of Justice brought charges of bribery and fraud against two members of the committee, though charges against both were eventually dismissed. No one was convicted of a crime in connection with the incident, but the events led the IOC to create more stringent ethical guidelines for its voting members.
Olympic selection is a high-stakes game, with no medal for second or third place. Bid cities have each invested more than $40 million to get to Copenhagen; the winner stands to pour in billions more for a chance at lucrative TV and sponsor revenues, as well as prestige on the world stage. The losers don't get any return on their investment other than a host of lessons to draw on for a subsequent second attempt. Who's going to stand alone? The IOC's announcement begins at 12:30 p.m. E.T.