With the approach of Wednesday's vote to decide a host for the 2012 Olympics, organizers of New York's bid have been enthusiastically embracing the label "underdog." Paris's bid team members, meantime, have been all but sprinting from suggestions that their bid is the odds-on favorite in the glitzy field of five.
" 'Front-runner' -- I didn't know this word before," Paris bid president Philippe Baudillon said in a recent telephone interview. "Now I know it, and I don't think it is appropriate."
The unpredictability of the International Olympic Committee's anonymous election system has left Paris fearful that its unofficial lead could prove advantageous to its rivals -- London is considered the biggest -- should Paris supporters in the IOC cavalierly use early rounds of voting to prop up other cities in the field.
Madrid, Moscow and New York, meantime, are clinging to hope and history: The apparent favorite has foundered before, upset by unconsidered influences and the vagaries of the IOC's voting system, which eliminates one city in each round until someone garners a majority of votes.
As many as 100 of the 116 voting members of the IOC -- an eclectic mix of athletes, sports officials, business leaders, physicians, lawyers and in some cases, royalty -- will cast votes in the first round (members from nations that are bidding are disqualified from voting until their nation is eliminated). They bring a variety of interests to the table. That, combined with anonymous voting, has made for some perplexing elections in the past.
"Nobody knows what is in the mind of each IOC member," Baudillon said. Predictions "are part of the game, but it's not the game. The real game is trying to show each IOC member they have to choose Paris. "
Paris is considered the favorite because it has bid twice before unsuccessfully -- the IOC tends to reward the persistence of repeat bidders -- and its bid received the most glowing praise in a June report from the IOC's evaluation commission. It also promises a Summer Games that would utilize a large number of temporary venues (13 of more than 30), which bid leaders say fits with IOC President Jacques Rogge's goal of downsizing the Olympics and opening future Games to less-privileged cities. Paris's glamour and stature, though, have little significance in this race, given the competition. London, New York and Madrid, all bidding for the first time, also received high marks from the IOC evaluation team.
Moscow's bid, on the other hand, drew criticism that some believe pushed it out of contention.
"You have five bid cities and five big countries and five teams that are very professional," Baudillon said. "It can't be something other than a very strong competition."
New York bid officials and supporters have tried to use a state board vote that nearly killed the bid a month before the election to its advantage, brashly spinning the publicity it has generated. The stunning defeat of their original Olympic stadium plan, which forced the creation of another with the help of the New York Mets in less than a week, bid leaders say, should not suggest a bid team defined by arrogance and a lack of preparedness. Rather, they say, it provided a showcase for the bid leaders' ingenuity and resilience in the face of problems -- two qualities perfect for an Olympic host, they argue.
"We healed our wounds quickly," NYC2012 Executive Director Jay Kriegel said. "People want to see whether we could come back. We're excited to be back -- we're the ones that went through this. No one knows how the [IOC] membership is going to react to this, but all we can do is go out and demonstrate our plan and fight for it. We want it."
U.S. Olympic officials privately admit they would be happy for New York to enter the election as the most popular second-choice city among IOC members. The most significant votes historically have come after the field has been narrowed. If Madrid or London were knocked out early, who would get the votes of their supporters?
Could New York build a winning bid on moderate initial support and the disappointment of supporters of eliminated European cities, who might try to steer the 2012 Games to another continent to ensure their city another chance at the 2016 Games (the IOC rarely sends consecutive Olympics to the same continent)?
History suggests a city doesn't have to be the favorite to win.
In 1993, Sydney won the 2000 Summer Games after trailing Beijing in every round of voting except the fourth. In that round, Sydney went ahead barely but decisively, 45-43. In a 1990 vote for the '96 Games, Atlanta trailed Athens -- considered a favorite because it had held the inaugural modern Games in 1896 -- for two rounds, caught up in Round 3, then prevailed in the fifth vote, 51-35.
There have been other voting oddities: Salt Lake City nearly was eliminated in the race for the 1998 Winter Games, finishing tied for the fewest votes after Round 1. But it survived a run-off, and nearly defeated Nagano in the fourth round, losing, 46-42. In the competition for the 2010 Winter Games that was pegged as a showdown between Vancouver and Salzburg, the South Korean city of Pyeongchang nearly pulled a stunning upset in the first round, earning 51 votes, just three short of a majority. With Salzburg eliminated, Vancouver won narrowly, 56-53, in the next round.
Of course, there have also been more predictable outcomes, usually involving repeat bidders. Athens won the 2004 Games after being shunned for 1996. Beijing won the 2008 Games by a large margin after the near-miss for 2000. And after its slim defeat to Nagano, Salt Lake City won on the first ballot for the 2002 Games (allegations of impropriety surrounded that election and led to major changes in the bidding process).
Sebastian Coe, the leader of London's bid, said he hoped Paris's previous bids would not influence IOC members.
"It isn't, nor should it be, about whose turn is it next," he said in a recent phone interview. "The judgments that have to be made are profound. . . . Where the Games go in 2012 will be a big determinant about what kind of future we have in Olympic sport, and our ability to reach out to young people.
"We recognize the cities' size and scale that are on the table," he said. "The prize is big. This is going to be close."