Chicago and Rio in Olympic star wars

Obama may hold the key to winning the Games for his home town – if he shows up for the vote

The race to follow London as Olympic Games host city enters its last lap in Copenhagen this week, and it has distinctly familiar echoes of four years ago, when Sebastian Coe's team joyously came from behind to pip Paris at the post. This time the International Olympic Committee's congress will see an eclectic gathering of political powerhouses pressing the flesh – and the claims of the four bidding cities, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo. But it could all hinge on whether the Main Man turns up.

Chicago has been favourite all along because of the Obama factor – a personable, sports-loving head of state as practised in the art of glad-handing as Tony Blair was when London snatched the prize in Singapore, and with even greater ballot-box appeal to the IOC's influential Third World contingent. But will he be there for the IOC members' vote on Friday?

So far he has not committed himself, citing his current preoccupation with matters such as Iran and the political row over his healthcare proposals, instead dispatching his equally winsome wife, Michelle, as Chicago's cheerleader-in-chief.

However, so frantic are the preparations in Copenhagen that the wise money is on him flying in to join her – and Oprah Winfrey, among other enlisted A-listers – in a cute tactical move to clinch the Games for his home city. Yet this will-he-won't-he dithering might prove counter-productive, as some IOC members seem resentful about being played like a game of political football.

All four bids are solidly impressive, but it's easy to see why Obama's Chicago has been leading the field. Once infamous for Capone, crime and speakeasies, it is now a city of chic and sporting substance – New York without the schmaltz. Yet now, just as Paris was in Singapore, the front- runner is looking over its shoulder, aware that the outcome is not going to be another Valentine's Day massacre, as seemed probable a few months ago.

Rio is coming up so fast on the rails that the Windy City has got the wind up, and this has further resonance of 2005: the ubiquitous sports-politics spinmeister who orchestrated London's successful PR campaign, Mike Lee, has played a significant role in helping to mastermind the strategy behind an energetic Brazilian bid.

Lee claims: "The momentum is with Rio at the moment and there are good reasons for that. We've worked bloody hard in terms of international presentation and had a lot of success with the Evaluation Commission and its report [Rio's was named as the best technical bid]. President Lula, not unlike Tony Blair for London, has been a big player in this. He will definitely be there." So will Pele for a contest that could well be decided by flesh-pressing galacticos – Juan Carlos of Spain will be rooting for Madrid, while Japan's spiky new premier, Yukio Hatoyama, is on standby to support Tokyo. Brazil's Lula, who started life as a shoeshine boy in São Paulo, is, like Obama, a charismatic figure and a key player after forging a new image for Brazil and bringing it stability.

Can Brazil's economic infrastructure afford the Olympics after the hosting of the World Cup two years earlier? "Actually, the economy is the real strength for the bid," argues Lee. "It is now the 10th largest economy in the world and by 2016, the World Bank says it will be the fifth largest. And Rio's opponents can hardly cite the World Cup as a reason for not giving the Olympics to Brazil because it is too much for one country. Japan, the USA and Spain are themselves all bidding to host the World Cup two years later in 2018."

The IOC president, Jacques Rogge, who will be returned unopposed when he stands for re-election at the congress, is believed to favour Rio – though he doesn't vote – because of the legacy it would create for a continent that has never held the Games, and both he and London's successful bid chief, Lord Coe, think it is going to be at least as close as the five votes which finally separated London and Paris.

The evidence suggests they are right and that once again it will be a tale of two cities, with a Chicago/Rio vote-off, though either Madrid or Tokyo could sneak in by the back door should one of the big two lose out in the first round through tactical voting.

Favourites do not have a great track record in these contests, but I hope Chicago wins because it has a London-like message of regeneration and an appeal to youth. But on-a-roll Rio are ready to rumble.

So the destination of the 2016 Games may be in Obama's hands, provided he is there to shake those of the star-struck Olympic constituents who will be raising theirs. Can he do it? Well, you know what he said before that other election....

Bidding for glory

Chicago Plus points: Compact and athlete-friendly; most sites within five miles of centre, many of them existing. Commercially attractive. Obama. Achilles heel: Concern over public transport. No financial guarantees from local or national government. Fizz factor: Great lakeside setting. Odds: 8-11.

Rio de Janeiro Plus points: Sun, samba, and first-ever Olympics in South America. Financially sound. Young, sports-loving population. Achilles heel: High crime rate. Poor transport. Lack of hotel rooms. Fizz factor: Beach volleyball on Copacabana. Odds: 11-4.

Tokyo Plus points: Efficiency. Emphasis on regeneration. Huge commercial opportunities. Achilles heel: Indifferent public support. Doubts about availability of land for Village. Fizz factor: None really – but Games would go like clockwork. Odds: 5-1.

Madrid Plus points: Influence of former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch; 23 venues in place. Experience of bidding last time. Achilles heel: IOC may not want third successive Games in Europe. Fizz factor: Fiesta atmosphere, like '92 in Barcelona. Odds: 8-1 (by William Hill).

Alan Hubbard