February 14 - It is supposed to be a time for celebrating love, but Valentine's Day 2012 will go down as the moment when the tremors of Europe's financial crisis swept dramatically into Olympic-land.
Less than 48 hours after the cradle of democracy and the Olympic Movement was turned into a battle-zone, the capital city of one of the more fiscally-challenged European countries pulled out of the race for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
According to early Italian press reports in the respected Corriere della Sera, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti – whose prospects of making a success of his new job hinge crucially on his reputation for fiscal prudence – took the decision to withdraw Rome from the high-stakes contest after careful evaluation of the costs and benefits.
"We arrived at the unanimous conclusion that in Italy's current condition the Government does not feel able to take on the commitment to offer the [financial] guarantee [needed to host the Olympics]," Monti told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.
At almost the same moment as this story was breaking, representatives of the capital city of another fiscally-challenged European country were delivering Madrid's Applicant City file to the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) headquarters in Lausanne.
Bid leader Alejandro Blanco said that winning the Games would "represent a source of economic development" that would boost industrial and commercial activity.
In the light of Rome's decision, though, many are likely to wonder whether it wouldn't have been more sensible for the Spanish capital to decide likewise that, under present circumstances, discretion was the better part of valour.
The Italian city's withdrawal will be a big blow to Mario Pescante (pictured above), the grand old man of Italian Olympism, for whom a Rome 2020 Summer Games would have made the perfect culmination to an illustrious career.
The move is also likely to be regretted by Jacques Rogge, the IOC President, both because it cuts the field to five applicants and, on a more personal level, because he knows the city well owing to his time with the European Olympic Committees.
In terms of the complexion of the race, Rome's withdrawal should boost the prospects of Istanbul, which can now realistically aspire to collecting the votes of more Europe-based IOC members – should it be cleared in May to progress to the second and decisive phase of this contest.
The pruning of the field to five runners may also make it more difficult for the IOC's Executive Board to pass over the very considerable attributes of Doha.
Should the Middle East city make it through to Candidate City status, there is every chance it would prove a formidable challenger for its rivals.
Doha handed in its Applicant City file yesterday, along with Tokyo, another of the front-runners.
Baku, whose bid shows every sign of being stronger than initially anticipated, submitted its file today, with Istanbul set to do so tomorrow.
The IOC is then due to announce the shortlisted cities at its Executive Board meeting in Quebec City on May 23.
Experienced Olympic observers think the ideal number of Candidate Cities from the IOC's point of view would be four, although it is conceivable that all five remaining contenders could be nodded through to the race's decisive stage.
The winning bidder will be decided in September 2013 in Buenos Aires.
In 1906, Rome was robbed of the opportunity of staging the 1908 Olympics by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
More than a century later, Romans may be reflecting that they have been deprived of their shot at the 2020 Games by its financial equivalent.
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