The first heat for the Olympics of ... 2012

Four cities are in fierce competition for Tuesday's first cut in the US bid to host the lucrative event a decade from now.

San Francisco has its international allure. Washington and New York have post-9/11 sentimental draw. And Houston has the art of the big business deal. And all of them want to add Olympic glory to their images.

Tuesday, the United States Olympic Committee narrows from four to two those US cities vying to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. That's 2012 – three Olympiads away – and the competition for that spot on the calendar is fierce. The economic benefits are considerable – $6 billion will be pumped into the chosen community. And the eyes of the world – 4 million visitors and 5 billion TV viewers – focus on the locale for three weeks.

"I don't think it's just about economic development or return of investment," says Mitt Romney, who headed the highly successful Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "It is a transforming experience for the people of the host city. Our citizens gathered with people from around the world in a way we will never experience again. One comes away with just a great sense of the qualities of the human character and spirit."

Mr. Romney, now the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, says he'd expected before 9/11 that it would be a long while before the US was hosted the Olympics again. But he thinks there is now worldwide sentiment to bring the games back to the US, and that New York and Washington would be the obvious leaders.

But all four cities, he and others agree, have natural advantages. The USOC will be looking at the receptiveness and hospitality of the host city, the quality of its Olympic venues, and its housing and transportation infrastructure. And security may play an even bigger role now than in the past.

The USOC must think down the road to when the US city chosen competes on the world stage with the likes of Rome, Paris, St. Petersburg, and Buenos Aires. For that reason, many believe San Francisco and Washington have the edge.

Over the past few months, each of the cities have submitted phonebook-sized bid proposals describing the nuts and bolts of their plans. Each has played host to the USOC – showing off their city's strengths.

But by Tuesday, only two will remain in the running. The two finalists will make presentations Nov. 2 and 3 in Colorado Springs, after which the USOC will name the US city to represent the US in international competition.

The International Olympic Committee will choose the city to host the 2012 Summer Olympics in 2005, giving it seven years to raise funds and complete its building.

• Christina Ianzito in Washington and Stella Lee in New York contributed to this report.

San Francisco

The Bay Area's iconic fog fuels the chillingly memorable comment of one anonymous visitor: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Given the high humidity factors for the other three cities in the running, that makes it, hands down, the best summer weather for athletic performance.

The city's charm may be its best draw – the hills, the cable cars, the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. And Tony Bennett – drafted to help lobby for the city's Olympic bid – is still crooning about leaving his heart there.

"The city itself is a collective, high work of art achieved over a 200-year period since the days of the Spanish," says Kevin Starr, California's state historian. "It's the whole panoply of presenting to the rest of the world the high instance of American civilization and civility."

The city already is a highly developed tourist destination with plenty of hotels, restaurants, museums and other cultural draws. In addition, it has an integrated transportation system – the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) and ferries to carry people to the various venues that are spread out from the Bay area to Sacramento's Lake Natoma.

It's also a leading academic center – lots of universities with first-rate athletic fields. And there are incredibly beautiful wilderness areas. The Marin Headlands, where several outdoor events can be held, Mr. Starr boasts, is as untouched as it was thousands of years ago and would prove most photogenic for international television viewers.

"San Francisco's intrinsically international – the Geneva of the Pacific," Starr says.

Washington, D.C.

With its expansive Mall and monuments along the Potomac, the capital revels in its beauty and charm as well. And it has the post-9/11 sentimental pull. Its proposed Olympic theme: "Heart of Our Nation, Host to the World."

The area's only Achilles' heel "is being blessed by an abundance of resources. We have so many good things about our bid that the challenge becomes, what are the right ones to market?" says Clarence Bishop, senior vice president of the Chesapeake Region 2012 Coalition.

Washington and Baltimore combined their bids in 1998, concluding it doesn't make sense for cities 35 miles apart to compete. Between them, there's an abundance of first-rate sports facilities: Camden Yards for baseball; soccer at Ravens stadium; sailing at Annapolis; mountain biking in Patapsco Valley State Park. Plus, there are major universities with excellent athletic facilities.

"Washington is used to mega-events – the presidential inauguration, the Million Man March, the Million Mom March. We have the coordination and logistical systems already in place," says Mr. Bishop.

New York City

New York will, of course, be the sentimental favorite. Who can forget the compassion, courage, and resilience the city has shown over the past year?

Still, it has other highly marketable qualities. And it is America's most international city.

"New York has a unique history as being the welcoming point for people all around the world," says Jay Kriegel, executive director of NYC 2012. "And today, New York has numerous communities representing every possible ethnic group."

It already has many of the sports venues necessary. There's Yankee Stadium for baseball, Flushing Meadows for tennis, Madison Square Garden for boxing, and the Meadowlands in New Jersey for soccer.

It also has the infrastructure. Manhattan alone has 60,000 hotel rooms.

And what would a few more be among the 4 million who already ride the city's subways? Every event, the city claims, will be within walking distance of a subway stop.

Moreover, the city has had to deal with security not only for many world-stage events in the past, but also in the aftermath of 9/11.

"One of the advantages of New York is that we have one of the largest, if not the largest, police department in the country," Mr. Kriegel says. "The games will be held under one unified jurisdiction, and this will make things more efficient."

Houston

This sprawling city has the worst summer weather of the four cities, but it does have a few things on its side: the oil and energy industry and the art of big business deals. That means it's flush with not only cowboy hats and bolo ties, but cash.

It's the first of the four cities to have all of the government-required financial backing in place.

And Houston boasts more air-conditioned buildings than any other US city. In fact, Houston's plan is formed around three domed stadiums infused with cold air.

"We've got a can-do attitude," says Jim McIngvale, president of Gallery Furniture in Houston and one of the first people to lobby for the Olympics to come to this city. "Whatever it is they throw our way, we'll make it work. In 2004, we're hosting the Super Bowl, the baseball Allstar game, and the Master's Cup, the 5th biggest tennis tournament. We're a very sports-minded city, and we would love to get this bid."

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