Four cities have spent millions of dollars, worked for years and each has survived two rigorous site inspections - all for a dream that is, at best, still a decade away.
Now all they can do is wait until Tuesday when the United States Olympic Committee is to announce the two finalists in the competition to be the U.S. candidate to be host city for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
Several experts say the smart money is on Washington-Baltimore and San Francisco. Houston and New York are the other contenders.
"Baltimore-Washington and San Francisco have more magic to them than the other cities competing," said John A. Lucas, a retired Pennsylvania State University professor who for the past 12 years has served as official lecturer and historian for the International Olympic Committee. "I think those two cities will have to thrash it out."
Although Houston's bid is widely viewed as quite strong technically, in part because it has the lowest capital costs of the four, the city is given little chance to be one of the two finalists because it lacks international appeal.
The other cities also face obstacles. New York has a glitzy but high-budget bid - too high, according to experts.
Washington's capital city status could fuel an anti-American backlash from abroad, and San Francisco may be too close to Vancouver, British Columbia, a perceived frontrunner for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
As this week's announcement nears, local organizers remain confident.
"I am very optimistic," said John Morton III, chairman of the local bid committee and president of Bank of America's mid-Atlantic operations. "Our bid is fundamentally solid in design, it's very feasible in terms of execution, and it has as its centerpiece the long-term international appeal of Washington."
The United States Olympic Committee's decision will be announced Tuesday in Chicago. The two finalist cities then will make presentations during a two-day USOC meeting in Colorado Springs that begins Nov. 2. The USOC's 123-member board of directors will name a U.S. candidate city Nov. 3.
To secure the Games, the American candidate would have to beat international competition. Among the cities reportedly considering a bid are London, Paris, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto and Havana. The International Olympic Committee expects to name a site for the 2012 Games in September 2005.
The USOC uses a variety of criteria to judge bids. Among the most important is cost, especially since the international committee has said costs must be contained so that more cities worldwide can compete.
The U.S. bids range widely in that category. New York's bid, at the high end, calls for $1.2 billion in capital improvements. (The bid doesn't include another $2 billion subway extension and $1 billion stadium/convention center expansion.)
At the other end of the spectrum is Houston, with capital improvements of $165 million, followed by Washington-Baltimore, with $610 million, and San Francisco, with $220 million.
Overall, projected Games budgets are $2.8 billion for Washington, $2.4 billion for San Francisco, $2.2 billion for New York and $2 billion for Houston.
Lisa Delpy Neirotti, associate professor of sports management at George Washington University, believes that New York's huge capital budget may spell doom for that bid.
N.Y. `not going to fly'
"Even though New York has great international appeal, their bid says $1 billion of their Olympic broadcast and marketing revenue will be going to build facilities," she said. "It's not going to fly with the IOC."
The IOC has said that there will be limits on how much marketing and broadcast money can be used for capital expenditures, Neirotti said.
"The USOC has to be careful," she said. "If the USOC is in touch with where the IOC is heading in limiting the spending of Olympic marketing and broadcast revenue on capital expenditures, New York would be a risky bid to put forward."
Because of the staggering costs involved, each of the bid cities must demonstrate guarantees to pay expenses and debts should revenue fall short of projections.
A bid that does not include the financial guarantee would be eliminated from consideration, USOC officials have said.
Perhaps the most important category is international appeal since the bid must win the support of the IOC - most of whose members live abroad.
It's a message that Charles H. Moore, chairman of the USOC task force that will choose the finalists, has hammered home.
"All four of these bids are technically strong," said Moore, who lives in Washington and works in New York. "When push comes to shove, we will rule on the side of the international appeal, rather than the technical bid."
This is why experts view San Francisco, with its cosmopolitan makeup and near-perfect weather, as a finalist.
Conversely, Houston scores low in international appeal, despite the other strengths of its bid.