OLYMPICS: South Korean entry is one to beat

LONDON - Send the Winter Olympics to a new frontier in Asia, or go back to the roots of winter sports in the heart of Europe?

That sums up the choice facing the International Olympic Committee when it selects the host city for the 2018 Games.

By all accounts, the South Korean bid from Pyeongchang remains the one to beat in the three-city race that also includes Munich and Annecy, France, when nearly 100 IOC members cast their secret ballots on Wednesday in Durban, South Africa.

Pyeongchang, bidding for a third consecutive time after narrow defeats for the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, would become the first Asian city outside Japan to host the Winter Games.

Munich, bidding to become the first city to stage both the Summer and Winter Olympics, is pushing Pyeongchang to the wire in what is shaping up as a two-horse race. The French bid from Annecy is the clear outsider.

"The two front-runners are still front-runners and Annecy is a little behind," Norwegian IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg told The Associated Press. "Everybody is waiting for the presentations and most people have not made up their minds."

In May, the three contenders made presentations to the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland, but frantic campaigning will remain until the last minute, capping a two-year race that took bid leaders around the world to push their case.

IOC votes can be unpredictable - particularly for the Winter Games, with many members coming from countries with no winter sports tradition or interest. Intangible factors such as politics, geography, sentiment, future bids and personal relationships come into play as much as the quality of the bobsled or curling venues.

The final presentations on Wednesday could also swing some votes.

"I think it's still close," Swiss IOC executive board member Denis Oswald said. "Munich is certainly a very strong challenger. We would be sure they would have an excellent organization. The Annecy bid is not bad at all, but they had a bad start and it was difficult to catch up."

South Korea President Lee Myung-bak and German President Christian Wulff will be in Durban to promote their countries' bids. However, in a sign of Annecy's faint hopes, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is not traveling to South Africa and is sending Prime Minister Francois Fillon instead.

Tony Blair was instrumental in securing the 2012 Olympics for London, and Vladimir Putin helped Sochi land the 2014 Winter Games. But President Barack Obama didn't help Chicago's cause when he traveled to Copenhagen for the IOC vote in 2009, and the U.S. city was eliminated in the first round.

Better recognized than the heads of state this time will be two figure skating stars: Former two-time Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt chairs the Munich bid, while 20-year-old reigning champion Kim Yu-na is a key face in the Pyeongchang delegation.


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