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The 2016 Olympics: The betting odds

President Obama is headed to Copenhagen. Will it matter?

But the biggest boost for Rio came last month when the IOC released its technical evaluations. Traditionally this report has helped or hurt at least one candidate. This time no contender was singled out with an overly favorable or critical assessment. Rio’s budget was considered realistic — Chicago’s was “ambitious” — and its crime epidemic was glossed over as “public safety challenges." Of course, with last week’s brutal beating death of a 16-year-old in Chicago, the 13th student murdered there in 2009, crime is hardly a talking point for its Olympic campaign. And it should be grateful that — despite major, ongoing political scandals — the report made no mention of how Chicago and Illinois face “ethical challenges.”

Support for the Rio bid at home was particularly striking. While Chicago struggled to forge the political consensus that would provide the requisite financial guarantees — Mayor Richard Daley finally ramrodded the package through the city council last month — Brazil’s city, state and federal governments all backed Rio 2016 with unequivocal enthusiasm. And while a Chicago Tribune poll showed support among residents at only about 50 percent, the IOC report noted overwhelming backing for a Rio Olympics among sports-mad Brazilians. Still, the politics of IOC votes are arcane. In a competitive, four-way contest conducted by secret ballot (with the low vote-getter eliminated after each ballot), any of the four cities could emerge a winner. Madrid led the 2012 vote for two rounds, Beijing 2000 for three rounds and Athens 1996 for two rounds before losing to London, Athens and Atlanta respectively. Rio might be everyone’s second choice, a potentially winning position, yet find itself eliminated after the initial ballot it isn’t enough delegates’ first choice.

Spain’s bid is bolstered by powerful insider connections, especially with King Juan Carlos, himself a former Olympian, and former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch in Copenhagen. But the geographic balance hurts Madrid the most, with Europe having hosted the Summer Games as recently as 2004 and slated to host again in 2012.

Tokyo’s plan was impressively compact — almost completely contained by the city center — and would effectively utilize the city’s high-density transportation network. But Japan has been reeling from economic and politic turmoil and public support for another Olympics there — the ’98 Winter Games were in Nagano — is conspicuously lukewarm.

Unlike the campaign for the 2012 Summer Games, where four of the five finalists were from Europe, each finalist represents a different continent. That leaves the African bloc, with no home team, as potentially fertile ground for Obama’s efforts. The African vote was critical 20 years ago when Atlanta, with a black mayor and other prominent African-American leaders, upset Athens, the host of the first modern Olympics, for the centennial Games.

Rio’s biggest problem in sealing the deal could turn out to be its surprising standing as the pre-vote favorite. The IOC may love making history and spreading the Games around the planet. But it also cherishes its unpredictability and seems to relish delivering upsets. On the last two occasions, the IOC has awarded the Games — London 2012 and Sochi 2014 — to cities that entered the final fray regarded as underdogs.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct which continents have hosted the Games.