LONDON -- The high-profile race for the 2012 Olympics kicked off Thursday with one of the most glamorous lists of cities in the games' history contending for the hosting honors.
Nine applicant cities met Thursday's deadline for submitting preliminary documents to the International Olympic Committee, with Paris, London, Madrid and New York leading the field.
The bidders sent replies to a detailed IOC questionnaire covering key issues such as venues, financing, security, transportation, political support and accommodation.
"I hear Paris, I hear New York, I hear London. There is a lot of speculation for the time being, but it's much too early," Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said. "I don't think there is a favorite."
An IOC panel will study the responses to determine whether the cities meet the criteria for hosting the world's biggest sports festival.
In May, the IOC executive board will decide whether to accept the bids of all nine cities or trim the field to around half a dozen. The IOC will make its final selection in July 2005 in Singapore.
The complete list of candidates included: Havana; Istanbul, Turkey; Leipzig, Germany; London; Madrid, Spain; Moscow; New York; Paris, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"We are delighted to see that all nine applicant cities have returned their dossiers on time," IOC president Jacques Rogge said. "There is still a long way to go until the election of the host city in July 2005. We wish good luck to all nine cities and look forward to a fair competition."
Most IOC members are focused on next summer's games in Athens and haven't started looking ahead to 2012 yet. But the current signs point to Paris as the city to beat. London and Madrid are other strong European contenders, with New York and Rio also in the mix.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to attend a ceremony Friday at the Royal Opera House in Convent Garden, where officials will unveil bid details for the first time. French officials will hold a news conference at the Eiffel Tower.
London, which last staged the Olympics in 1948, launched an advertising campaign Thursday featuring some of the city's best known landmarks. The posters feature a hurdler clearing Tower Bridge and a woman high jumper soaring over the London Eye ferris wheel under the slogan "Leap for London."
The British bid, led by American businesswoman Barbara Cassani, is centered on a proposed main Olympic complex - including an 80,000-set stadium. There are also plans for tennis at Wimbledon, triathlon in Hyde Park and the soccer final at the new Wembley stadium.
Paris is considered especially strong after successfully hosting soccer's World Cup in 1998 and last summer's world track and field championships. Members may feel Paris, which hasn't hosted the Olympics since 1924, has paid its dues after failed attempts for the 1992 and 2008 games.
Madrid, the only major European capital which has never hosted the games, has strong credentials and should count on sizable support from the IOC's Latin American bloc. But Barcelona hosted the games in 1992, making it difficult for Spain to get the games again so soon.
The Olympics have never been staged in South America, giving Rio a strong selling point with IOC members eager to spread the games around the world. But Brazil's economic and crime problems could be a factor.
New York was once considered a sentimental choice after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but has a number of handicaps - reluctance to take the Olympics to North America two years after Vancouver's Winter Games, an absence of natural bloc support and general anti-American sentiment.
Once the field is finalized, an IOC evaluation commission will visit the cities to inspect the bids and compile a detailed report for IOC members. Since the Salt Lake City scandal, members are barred from visiting bid cities.
Glance at Olympics 2012 bid race:
THURSDAY DEADLINE: Last day for nine applicant cities to submit replies to IOC questionnaire on key issues.
THE FIELD: Havana; Istanbul, Turkey; Leipzig, Germany; London; Madrid, Spain; Moscow; New York; Paris, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
WHAT'S NEXT: IOC executive board decides May 18 whether to accept all nine bid cities or reduce the field to short list.
FINAL DECISION: IOC selects host city on July 6, 2005, in Singapore.
CONTENDERS: Paris, London, Madrid, New York, Rio.
LONGSHOTS: Havana, Istanbul, Leipzig, Moscow.
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