Rio will be hoping to bring the Olympics to South America for the first time [GALLO/GETTY]

Four cities have been selected as finalists for the 2016 Olympics, setting the stage for a high-profile bidding contest between candidates from the United States, Europe and Asia.

Making the IOC shortlist were Chicago, Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.

Eliminated from the race were Doha, Prague and Baku.

The final field was selected by the International Olympic Committee executive board.

The big four - Chicago, Madrid, Rio and Tokyo - had all been virtually assured of advancing to the final stage.

The main issue had been whether Doha would also make the cut.

The finalists now advance to a 16-month race that will culminate on October 2, 2009, with a secret ballot by the full IOC at its session in Copenhagen, Denmark.

An IOC evalutation report assessing the technical merits of each bid ranked Tokyo with the top overall marks, followed closely by Madrid.

Chicago and Doha were tied for third, with Rio fourth. Prague and Baku were sixth and seventh.

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

Chicago is a contender to take the games back to the US for the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Games.

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.

The Doha wildcard

Doha, capital of oil-rich Qatar, had loomed as the wild card as it sought to bring the games to the Middle East for the first time.

It cited its hosting of the 2006 Asian Games as evidence that it can handle the Olympics.

Due to Qatar's searing summer heat, Doha proposed holding the games in October, outside the IOC's preferred time frame of July or August.

Some rival bid officials had been worried that if Doha made the shortlist, the city, while a longshot to win, would have the capacity to take away crucial votes in the early rounds of voting.

The IOC was set to release a report later Wednesday assessing the technical merits of the bids, offering an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates going into the final phase.

Cities that made the cut will have to submit their detailed bid files to the IOC by February 12, 2009.

After that, a panel of IOC experts will visit each of the cities, tour the proposed sites and meet with bid and government leaders.

The panel will release an evaluation report to the IOC members a month before the October 2009 vote.

The 2016 cut-off was the centerpiece of a three-day IOC board meeting in Athens, the last before the committee gathers in Beijing on the eve of the Olympics which begin on August 8.

Source: Agencies