TORONTO -- Tuesday afternoon in Tokyo will have the tense air of a political convention for Paul Henderson, president of the Toronto Ontario Olympic Council.

"It's election or rejection, like waiting for the puff of smoke to tell you if the new Pope has been chosen," Henderson said. But all that will go up in smoke is five years of planning and propaganda, hope and hype by five of the six bidding cities.

The International Olympic Committee will determine in a series of secret ballots which of the candidates will play host to the 1996 Olympic Games. Politicking has always been part of the five-ring Olympic circus and politics is the rock that may have sunk Toronto, an early front-runner whose bid has been conducted almost singlehandedly by Henderson.

As the IOC bestows the Games, worth millions of dollars in economic spinoffs, Henderson will mark the end of a five-year odyssey during which he has traveled the globe five times and brought to Toronto 78 of the 87 IOC voters expected to cast ballots in Tokyo.

Henderson, 54 and easily identified by his shaved head and prickly personality, has pushed Toronto's safety -- subtly underlining Atlanta's recent FBI rating as the most violent of U.S. cities and Athens's location so close to the turbulent Middle East.

He has put IOC men aloft in a blimp to see the compact nature of this city of 3 million on Lake Ontario, which would offer Olympic sailors a rare chance to share village life with their compatriots. He has put those IOC representatives on the city's subway system and taken them through multicultural communities. Naturally, he points out the probability of a billion-dollar TV contract in the Eastern time zone.

He also has devised a plan aimed at defusing the sentimental push for Athens to stage the centenary Games. "By all means, Athens should have the centennial celebration for the Olympics in 1996 -- the arts, the culture, the flame ceremony and even the marathon belong there," he said.

"But then the IOC should look at staging these Games as the start of the second century, and award the actual sport competition to one of the modern cities, which could help underwrite the cost of Athens's Olympic centennial," he added, looking for a back door to Mount Olympus.

Played down have been the facts that Toronto has a perpetually jammed, inefficient airport and lacks an Olympic-sized stadium (budgeted for $125 million) and Olympic swim center (budgeted for $80 million).

And for Toronto's bidders, the road to Tokyo has been fraught with political problems. Local politicians have faced the conflict of backing the billion-dollar Games while 80,000 people line up at Toronto food banks.

Bidders from Atlanta observed Canada's constitutional squabbles and detected an advantage. A country without a settled constitution won't satisfy the IOC's requirement for stability.

Moreover, for several weeks now, the Canadian military and Mohawk Indians have been involved in an armed standoff in two Quebec towns. When a government responds to such land claims by calling out the army, it's not likely to be regarded as favorable.

"The IOC awards the Games to a city, not a country," Henderson said hopefully.

In Tokyo, the impact of all the politics and propaganda will be tallied. With each ballot, the city with the fewest votes is dropped and its supporters must shift allegiance to another candidate. Henderson would love to have a "kingmaker" in the room delivering support to Toronto, but that is beyond his control.

Ironically, it becomes crucial for Toronto to be a voter's second-favorite town, Henderson believes.

"When delegates come to Tokyo, most are committed for the first round," said Henderson, an engineer and Olympic yachtsman who has navigated Toronto's candidacy since 1986. "Where do they go when their city drops out?" In Toronto's case, the more ballots required to determine a winner, the stronger the chance that it can draw support from other sources to upset sentimental favorite Athens.

"We know people are taking us seriously. They know we can do the job," said Henderson. "But the IOC still hasn't come to grips with the importance of holding the 100th anniversary of the Games in Greece. If they question it, then they look to us."

The bidding cities make up three distinct categories. Athens is in a class by itself, as the birthplace of the modern Olympics in 1896. Then come three well-matched and modern cities -- Toronto, Atlanta and Melbourne, Australia. Manchester, England, and Belgrade fall into the long-shot category, having spent little on promoting their bids. Belgrade has spent only 5 percent of what each of the modern trio has spent and will probably be the first to slip off the ballot. It's what happens next that may spell Toronto's fate.

"I personally believe that Manchester will not be the second city out," Henderson said. "The three modern cities will all be attractive to the same people. How will those votes split? It's entirely possible that one of them could get fewer votes than Manchester. Then what?"

The real showdown would occur on the third ballot. That would become the make-it or break-it vote for ancient Athens, which is trying hard to convince the IOC that it has answers to pollution, traffic jams and security concerns. If Athens hasn't obtained a majority by that point, its vulnerability would be exploited by the strongest modern challenger.

Predictions are impossible, Henderson said. The IOC deck is loaded with wild cards. Eastern European delegates no longer will vote as a block. Some delegates put heavy emphasis on security, others on the cultural component of the Olympics, still others on a country's record against apartheid.

The IOC voters also cannot be expected to vote along political lines. Most of the monied elitists who make up the IOC don't bow to political pressures. "Could you imagine Margaret Thatcher trying to tell Princess Anne how to vote?" Henderson said. Tomorrow: Belgrade and Manchester

James Christie covers the Olympic movement for the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Six cities are vying for the 1996 Summer Olympics: Atlanta; Athens; Belgrade; Manchester, England; Melbourne, Australia, and Toronto. A vote to decide the site will be taken by the International Olympic Committee Tuesday in Tokyo. In this series, The Washington Post assesses the competing cities.