ATHENS, June 3: Just two months before the Beijing Games, the IOC is turning its attention to the Olympics eight years away.

The International Olympic Committee executive board will pick a shortlist of finalists on Wednesday in the race for the 2016 Summer Games.

The big question is how many: three, four or five? With seven cities in the running, the board is expected to whittle the field to a maximum of five or minimum of three candidates.

“I would think four or five,” IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg told the Associated Press.

Fairly certain of making the cut are the big four -- Chicago; Madrid, Spain; Tokyo; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Expected to be eliminated are Prague, Czech Republic, and Baku, Azerbaijan.

The main issue is whether Doha, Qatar, will advance to the final stage.

Wednesday’s decision will kick start a high-profile bidding contest that will end on Oct 2, 2009, when the full IOC votes by secret ballot at its session in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“I look at it as, ‘This is it. It’s a sprint from June 4 until October 2009,’” Chicago bid leader Patrick Ryan said in an interview on Tuesday. “We’re feeling a bit like everyone else — cautious, uncertain and hopeful. We’re going into this assuming nothing. We just hope we’ll be honoured to be on the shortlist.”

The 2016 race shapes up as a tight battle between strong candidates from the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Chicago is a contender to take the summer games back to the US for the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Madrid is back again after a third-place finish in the vote for the 2012 Olympics, which went to London. Tokyo, which held the games in 1964, hopes to bring the Olympics to Asia eight years after Beijing. And Rio, which hosted the 2007 Pan American Games, would be the first South American city to get the Olympics.

Doha, capital of a tiny but wealthy Arab Gulf country of about 1 million people, looms as the wild card as it seeks to bring the games to the Middle East for the first time. It cites are hosting of the 2006 Asian Games as evidence that it can handle the Olympics.—AP

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