BELGRADE, SEPT. 15 -- In the intense competition to host the 1996 Olympics, Belgrade has joined Manchester, England, as the candidates with perhaps the least chance to be awarded the Games.
As the International Olympic Committee gathers in Tokyo Tuesday to choose from the six candidate cities, officials in the Yugoslav capital are pinning their hopes on the exceptional state of readiness of Belgrade's facilities -- nearly 90 percent of the city's Olympic venues are in place and in use.
Privately, however, officials admit the odds are heavily stacked against them. Although Belgrade has a good track record as host of sporting and other events, Yugoslavia's serious ethnic conflicts and political and economic uncertainties are bound to weigh against the city's bid.
Nevertheless, Yugoslav Olympic Committee President Aleksandar Bakocevic is putting on a brave face: "We are a city full of sporting enthusiasts and facilities. . . . and most of these facilities are of Olympic standard."
They include the 97,000-seat Red Star soccer stadium, which would host the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies and track and field events.
The only major facilities still to be built are the velodrome for cycling races and a shooting range. A 20,000-seat basketball and volleyball hall will be completed in time for the next world basketball championship, in 1994.
Boxing, gymnastics, swimming and water polo venues are among the other existing facilities inherited from Belgrade's previous hosting of more than 40 major world and European sports events.
Plans already have been drawn up for an Olympic village of 12,000 competitors near the city center in which "every athlete will have his/her apartment," according to a report accompanying Belgrade's application to the IOC.
Of all the Olympic events, only three would be held outside a radius of five miles from the Olympic Village: Badminton at Obrenovac 12 miles away, table tennis at Novi Sad 45 miles north of Belgrade, and sailing on the Adriatic coast at Split.
With so much going for it, Belgrade ought to rank alongside Athens as a co-favorite for the Games. But paradoxically, the city's many existing facilities could be as much a handicap as an advantage.
In the first place, come 1996 most of Belgrade's Olympic venues will be more than 20 years old. Even with costly refurbishment, these will hardly approach the technological standards being planned by some of the city's higher-spending rivals such as Atlanta and Toronto.
In the public relations race, Belgrade has been left behind by its rivals' slick promotional campaigns.
The city's bid "lacks aggression," said one IOC member during a recent visit. It also lacks another vital ingredient: Charm. Belgrade failed to muster any outstanding Yugoslav Olympians, past or present, to promote its bid internationally.
Officials promoting the bid are mainly time-serving apparatchiks from the ranks of the Communist Party (recently renamed Socialist), which still runs Belgrade and surrounding Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia's six republics.
In the past, Yugoslavs have shown themselves better at organizing sports events than at making them pay. Officially, the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics broke even, but only wth the help of "voluntary" deductions from citizens' paychecks.
And Belgraders feel major problems such as traffic congestion and pollution should be tackled before the Olympics. Traffic density in the city is such that sidewalks are frequently blocked by parked cars.
Most worrisome of all are the ethnic tensions threatening to tear apart the Yugoslav federation. In May, more than 150 people were injured when rival Serb and Croat soccer fans fought a pitched battle in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.
The talk among Serb and Croat nationalists is of civil war unless Serbia and Croatia -- which together contribute more than half of Yugoslavia's 23 million people -- can form a new post-federal Yugoslavia.
"If things continue like this, Belgrade may soon be the capital of a nonexistent Yugoslavia," was the recent comment of one Yugoslavia newspaper.
Bakocevic dismisses these fears: "Belgrade is a very safe place. No incident has ever marred the many international events held here over the years."
Jim Fish is The Washington Post's special correspondent based in Belgrade.
Tomorrow: Melbourne, Australia