Madrid, Istanbul and Tokyo made their pitches to IOC members, hoping to seize the momentum in the final two months before the vote.
This was the first time the cities had the chance to present their case directly to the electorate — and Madrid made the most of it, generating a buzz that could make the race tighter than ever.
Counted out by many a few months ago because of Spain's severe financial troubles, Madrid hammered home the message that it offers a low-cost, no-risk bid.
And Crown Prince Felipe, a former Olympic sailor who was Spain's flag-bearer at the 1992 Barcelona Games, charmed the members with his speech.
"If you're grading performance, Madrid did the best in terms of the message and delivery of it," senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said. "The star of the day was the prince. It was his content, his delivery, his genuineness.
"Those who might have Madrid as a distant third would now be rethinking that."
Other members also cited the 45-year-old prince's appearance as the highlight of the day. Britain's Craig Reedie, who wrote a technical report evaluating the bids, said Madrid "lifted their game."
While Madrid stood out Wednesday, members said, all three cities made strong presentations and no candidate looms as a favourite heading into the vote on Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It was at a similar meeting in 2009 that Rio de Janeiro grabbed the momentum in the race for the 2016 Games, but members said there was probably no dramatic turn this time to decide the winner.
"I think it's less clear than before," Reedie said.
Istanbul's presentation passed off with scant mention of the anti-government protests that swept the country last month, while Tokyo cited its financial strength and the Olympics as a symbol of Japan's recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Istanbul is bidding for a fifth time overall and Tokyo is back for a second consecutive time. Madrid is bidding for a third time in a row after finishing third in the voting for the 2012 Olympics and second for the 2016 Games.
Spanish IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who was part of those two bids and sits on the 2020 committee, said it was too early to judge the impact of the presentation.
"I don't know about game changing," he said. "I never thought we were behind, but I don't think we're ahead. We pushed with all we had today. But we have to take a breath today. We won nothing today — nada."
The meetings took place behind closed doors at the Beaulieu convention centre. Each delegation had 45 minutes to make speeches and show videos, with another 45 minutes allotted for questions and answers.
Istanbul received no questions about the protests, and Madrid fielded no questions about the economy.
Of the IOC's 100 members, 86 attended the proceedings. Among those absent were FIFA president and Swiss member Sepp Blatter and Britain's Princess Anne.
Madrid has sought to position itself as the safe choice, despite Spain's recession and 27 per cent unemployment rate. Madrid brought Economy Minister Luis de Guindos to tell the IOC members that the economy was recovering and the games posed no financial risk.
Madrid stressed that it has 80 per cent of the venues ready and would need only $1.9 billion for Olympic construction.
"Madrid is not a bid based on dreams because we have already built it," the crown prince said. "It is a bid in keeping with the times. We have shouldered the responsibility and reduced the risks so that you, the IOC, do not have to take any."
Added bid leader Alejandro Blanco: "We are ready to stage the games now."
The Istanbul team included Turkey's deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Ali Babacan, who made a reference to the right of peaceful protests in his remarks to the IOC.
At a news conference afterward, Babacan said violent demonstrations can't be tolerated and he blamed "illegal organizations" for some of the trouble that led to a heavy police crackdown.
"There are many important things we learned from what happened and we are now working on what to do about it," he said.
Australian member Kevan Gosper asked the Istanbul delegation about press freedoms in Turkey but no one raised the issue of the protests.
"You've got to be careful you don't take it out of proportion," Pound said. "We all live in a 'Chicken Little' age where the sky is always falling in. It's seven years from now."
Istanbul defended its $19.4 billion infrastructure budget. Babacan acknowledged the figure "may seem large" but said $16.5 billion is already being invested in city projects, leaving only $2.9 billion for specific Olympic needs.
Istanbul bid chairman Hasan Arat urged the IOC to make a global statement by taking the games to a new region, a city that connects Asia and Europe. Turkey would also be the first predominantly Muslim country to host the games.
"Our city can guarantee and extraordinary games," Arat said. "The Olympic movement has stepped beyond sport to make history before, and you can do it again in Istanbul in 2020."
Tokyo, which hosted the games in 1964, portrays itself as the safest, most risk-free choice at a time of political and economic uncertainty. Japanese officials also stressed the economy, the third largest in the world, and the city's modern transport network.
"Every athlete and member of the games family will arrive on time, every time," Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose said. "No one will be stuck in a traffic jam when they should be competing, training or working."
The comment could be seen as a barb at Istanbul's congested traffic, an issue flagged up in the IOC evaluation report.
Tokyo also boasts a reserve fund of $4.5 billion — money in the bank — to be used for the Olympics.
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso — who competed in shooting at the 1976 Montreal Games — announced a new government initiative to send coaches and equipment to help develop sports projects in developing countries.
Aso said public support for the bid has been driven in part by the vision of the Olympics lifting Japan's spirits after the 2011 natural disaster that devastated the country.
"We wanted to rise again and this would be strengthened by hosting the Olympics," Aso said. "We can show the rest of the world that we have recovered so much."