By David Owen

David OwenIt has been an exciting week. The Candidature files of the three cities vying to host the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games have landed. This means that, for the first time, it is possible to compare the detail of the three rival projects. If, that is, you are prepared to sift through nine dense, if showy, volumes.

Don't worry: I've done it so you don't have to, and the first thing I would say, if my red-rimmed eyes do not deceive me, is that, though it is a short shortlist, it is a very varied one.

When they gather in the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires in September to vote, the 100-odd International Olympic Committee (IOC) members in whose hands the fate of the three projects lie will have a choice between what I would call a "minimalist" plan in which most of what you need to stage an Olympics is already there (Madrid), a "maximalist" plan entailing vast expenditure on sporting and general infrastructure (Istanbul) and one that lies somewhere in the middle (Tokyo). If recent history is any guide, they won't be scared off by the "maximalist" vision, if they judge that Istanbul is the right setting for this new chapter in the Olympic story - and Turkish officials convince them that their megaproject dream can be turned into reality with efficiency and without undue risk to the Movement.

Bid books are essentially reference documents. So the exercise I have just undertaken, scanning each of them in turn cover to cover, is rather artificial. Bid leaders need to hammer home their key points, which means that the documents are inevitably somewhat repetitive, which means in turn that bits of them start to grate when you are going through them systematically, rather than dipping into them as you would a dictionary. I got a little tired of Tokyo banging on about how it is "the capital of the future" and other similar phrases, without real justification. I lost count of how often Istanbul informed me that average travel time from the Olympic Village to all venues was within 16 minutes, although this might point up anxiety over mobility as a potential weak point. And if I never read another sentence from Madrid with a reference to "SMART" something-or-other, always capped up so it jumps off the page at you, it will be too soon.

Alejandro Blanco President of Madrid 2020 and Anna Botella Mayor of Madrid pose with the bid book in front of the IOC headquartersAlejandro Blanco (R), President of Madrid 2020, and Anna Botella (L), Mayor of Madrid, pose with the bid book in front of the IOC headquarters

There was, of course, also lots to appreciate in each of the documents. As always, I am lost in admiration for the teams that put them together. I loved the simple hand motif that tied the Madrid books together (figuratively speaking); a big improvement on that weird, multicoloured blancmange logo. And they made good use of photographs, hence elegantly underscoring that, unlike their rivals, most of the venues they would use for the 2020 Games are already in place, pretty much. Among the Tokyo highlights was a cheeky map of the world, portraying Japan close to the centre and Europe off at the left-hand edge somewhere.

There is no doubt, though, that when it comes to embracing the jargonistic and portentous lingua franca of the Olympic Movement, the Istanbul bid book does the best job. In this respect, it is pitch perfect. Within a few pages of the first volume, it has seamlessly interwoven an array of phrases and ideas that sum up why taking its flagship product to Istanbul is such a tempting idea for the Olympic Movement. "The first-ever Games host in the Muslim world"; Turkey's Olympic law "in place now for 20 years"; the potential for sponsors in "leveraging a spectacular city"; "Europe's youngest population". All are phrases just crying out to be highlighted in fluorescent marker pen. And then there is the obvious point about the city being where Europe meets Asia.

The document is also particularly canny about throwing in little extras that might be expected to appeal to one branch or another of the Olympic family. "T2 cars upgraded to T1; T1 cars for all NOC/NPC Presidents/Secretaries General"; an athletes' family home host programme that is free of charge; "an additional financial contribution of up to $40,000 (£25,000/€30,000)...offered to all NOCs/NPCs to help with the organisation and delivery of pre-Games training camps within Turkey"; free Wi-Fi for Olympic family members; perhaps most of all, "a dedicated budget of $250 million (£155 million/€187 million)...held by the Prime Minister of Turkey for allocation exclusively to projects determined by and with the IOC and IPC Presidents. This initiative will provide for the final "magical" touches..." Contrast this with Tokyo, which has already set aside a massive $4.5 billion (£2.8 billion/€3.4 billion) "Hosting Reserve Fund", but which I think makes too little of it.

Istanbul 2020 is planning a new 70000-seat waterfront Bosphorus Stadium for the ceremonies with a further 500000 people seated along the BosphorusIstanbul 2020 is planning a new 70,000-seat waterfront Bosphorus Stadium for the ceremonies, with a further 500,000 people seated along the Bosphorus

There are also details hidden away in the Turkish bid book which suggest quite persuasively that bid leaders have started to think innovatively about the actual Games programme. The focal point for ceremonies, we are told, will be a new 70,000-seat waterfront Bosphorus Stadium, "with a further 500,000 people seated along the Bosphorus to witness a unique Games celebration". If this six- or seven-fold expansion of the number of people who actually get to see parts of the Opening Ceremony live could be delivered successfully, it strikes me as a terrific way of making host-city inhabitants feel more involved in an event that can easily take on the feel of something forbidding and exclusive.

Equally, while I would have concerns about the logistics of getting thousands of athletes from an Olympic Village some distance away to this stadium, there is a hint in a reference to "Istanbul 2020's proposal to seat athletes in the stadium on arrival, prior to the Parade of Athletes, thereby eliminating staging/marshalling time" that organisers have started to think about this as well.

There are hints of magical moments in Tokyo too. It looks as though the cycle road races will start in the garden of the Imperial Palace, in front of 1,000 very privileged spectators. I think many judo players will root for Tokyo, for the opportunity to compete in the Nippon Budokan, one of the 1964 venues. While it looks like the new $1.5 billion (£930 million/€1.2 billion) Zaha Hadid-designed Kasumigaoka Stadium, to be ready for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, will be one of the wonders of the age. What is more, with many Olympic facilities, including a privately developed Olympic Village, in the vicinity of Tokyo Bay, Istanbul has no monopoly on water in this contest. Far from it.

Many judo players will root for Tokyo for the opportunity to compete in the Nippon BudokanMany judo players will root for Tokyo, for the opportunity to compete in the Nippon Budokan

Were I on Sir Craig Reedie's IOC bid inspection team that will pitch up in Istanbul on March 24, I think one of the areas I would want assurances on is the business of getting from A to B. It is absolutely obligatory nowadays to describe your Olympic bid as "compact", to such an extent that the word has started to lose its meaning. Let's just say that "compact" is not the first adjective I would apply to Istanbul's plans. (And while we're at it, might I just observe that Tokyo 2020's golf venue appears to be 55 kilometres from the main press centre.)

It might be that I am making too much of this as a consequence of past personal experience of what the Istanbul book describes rather charmingly as the city's "mobility challenges" – and, by the way, the narrowness of many busy streets. By putting the engine-room of the Games up to the north-west, near the old Atatürk Olympic Stadium, organisers have made sure that many athletes (and indeed media) would not need to go anywhere near the historic centre – at least not when they were on a schedule.

The bid book also notes that, "for those athletes competing in the Port cluster and the Ataşehir Arena volleyball venue, hotel rooms will be provided on a twin share basis, free of charge, in the NOC hotel precinct". So maybe my concerns are overdone; nevertheless, I would want to be reassured.

My other slightly negative thought about Istanbul, relates to the ambiance of that Atatürk Stadium area. When I visited last time I was in the city, I found it extremely flat and the stadium itself a bit of a sad relic. I do think Turkey erred in building it before it had won the Games and the small matter of $179 million (£110 million/€134 million) is being budgeted in the current bid for renovations. Very probably the tide of investment and the excitement as the Games approached would transform the area beyond all recognition. Once again, though, I would want reassurance.

Turkish ArmyIstanbul 2020 says the Turkish Army, currently numbering more than 600,000 personnel, will be an important source of additional security resources for contingency situations

Overall, however, I think the Turkish bid book will go down very well. In another example of its thoroughness, it is, as far as I can make out, the only one of the three to have budgeted remotely realistically for security. And, given what transpired in London, many will no doubt be comforted to learn that "the Turkish Army, currently numbering more than 600,000 personnel, will be an important source of additional resources for contingency situations".

Madrid is superbly set up to host a Games. Indeed, if the IOC fired a starting-pistol and said the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics would go to the first candidate demonstrating it had everything in place to stage them, the Spanish capital would probably win hands down. In all its years of trying, however, it has not said anything to convince me that its main reason for wanting the Olympics is not simply that its archrival Barcelona has had them.

This latest bid book, in my opinion, still lacks a really convincing, Istanbul-style narrative painting an inspiring picture of why the Movement would be missing out if it chooses one of its rivals. And, yes, maybe we bid junkies can overstate the importance of narrative. But it is often narrative that gets the Olympic story off the sports pages and onto the front pages, if that is not too old-fashioned an image to encounter on an Olympic sports website.

The Madrid 2020 dossier does little either to discourage the notion that money would be tight – at least until such time as Western Europe's fiscal and economic circumstances took a pronounced turn for the better. The Spanish bid would look to raise almost $900 million (£560 million/€670 million) from ticket sales. That's less than London 2012, but more than Tokyo's $776 million (£480 million/€580 million) and more than double Istanbul's figure. I can't help wondering what hard-pressed Madrileños must think of a minimum price for opening ceremony tickets that appears to be $359 (£222/€269).

I would say Madrid 2020 was clearly the IOC's low-risk option – and the low level of capital investment required to ready the city for the Games means this might still be the case – but until the rumbling euro crisis is resolved I would hesitate to make that point too emphatically.

japan-earthquake1Tokyo 2020 handled the matter of what it terms "the Great East Japan Earthquake" sensibly and well

As for Tokyo, I do wonder whether its bid book has highlighted its immense strengths quite as cogently as it might have, although it is probably right to see London 2012's success as potentially a positive, in that it demonstrated that the Olympics do not always need to pierce new frontiers to make a splash. I think the bid also handled the matter of what it terms "the Great East Japan Earthquake" sensibly and well.

While Turkey has grown rapidly in recent years, Japan's economic clout is rivalled by very few. To take a small example from the bid book, compare projected domestic sponsorship revenues. Tokyo is budgeting for $932 million (£578 million/€697 million) – and, I would say, it is being conservative; its two rivals, $694 million (£430 million/€519 million) (Madrid) and $654 million (£405 million/€489 million) (Istanbul) respectively.

The Tokyo Bay regeneration sounds exciting, but it is hard to know how exciting without having a sense of what the zone is like today. And I think bid leaders missed a trick by not making more of that $4.5 billion (£2.8 billion/€3.4 billion) fund.

Important as they are though, the outcome of this 2020 race will not be determined by the Candidature files alone. All the runners face potential issues it is not entirely within their power to control. Tokyo, for example, must hope that local approval ratings for the city staging the Games climb above the 65 per cent level recorded by its recent poll.

Even so, it has been an exciting week.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.