South Korea favorite for 2018 Games

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.

On paper, Pyeongchang would seem to have everything going for it: The persistence of bidding several times over 10 years, geography, the promise to develop winter sports in a new market of Asia, strong national priority given to the bid, compact layout of the venues.

The recent trend of sports bodies in taking their major events to new territories also plays in Pyeongchang's favor.

Russia will host its first Winter Olympics in 2014 in Sochi; Rio de Janeiro will be the first South American city to stage the Olympics in 2016; the 2018 World Cup will take place in Russia and the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

It's no coincidence that Pyeongchang's bid slogan is "New Horizons."

The Winter Games have been held twice in Asia, both times in Japan -- Sapporo (1972) and Nagano (1998).

"For me, it's a sports/political decision," Oswald said. "It's mainly whether you take this opportunity to open winter sport to a new continent. It would be pretty much in the spirit of Rio."

Not surprisingly, Pyeongchang has sought to downplay the favorite tag.

"Bidding is like a marathon," bid leader Cho Yang-ho said. "This is the final kilometer and everyone is working hard to keep going until the end. I am tense. I used to be a good sleeper but now I don't sleep. Some people say we are leading but you never know until the last minute."

Munich is offering its own strong case, noting that winter sports power Germany will not have hosted a Winter Games in more than 80 years -- in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936. Garmisch-Partenkirchen would stage the Alpine events in 2018.

Witt said the choice of an Olympic host city is "about more than just geography."

"It is a choice about the kind of Olympic experience the athletes of the future should have," she said, citing Germany's passionate sports fans and full arenas.

Munich has also played up the financial clout of German sponsors, pointing out that half of sponsorship revenues for the seven winter sports federations comes from funding by German companies.

Annecy, a lakeside town, says it would offer "authentic" and "green" games in a traditional style in the heart of the French Alps.

Behind the scenes, an unpredictable factor could come into play: the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Rome is already a declared candidate, while Madrid and Tokyo are also considering bids ahead of the Sept. 1 deadline. European members may prefer to have the 2018 Games in Asia to increase their chances for 2020.

"It may be in their best interest to not have something in Europe and not let Tokyo get away with some kind of sympathy," senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said. "If you give the winter games to Asia, you effectively take Tokyo out of 2020. How that will affect European voting patterns remains to be seen."

There will be only a limited amount of time for lobbying in Durban as most IOC members won't be arriving until Monday or Tuesday. Several dozen will be arriving straight from Monaco, where they were invited to attend the weekend wedding of Prince Albert and former South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock. Albert is an IOC member and former Olympic bobsled competitor.

Under the IOC voting system, a majority is required for victory. The candidate getting the fewest votes is eliminated after each round until a winner emerges.

In 2003, Pyeongchang led after the first round of voting for the 2010 Winter Games. The Koreans had 51 votes, followed by Vancouver with 40 and Salzburg with 16. Vancouver won 56-53 in the next round.

In 2007, Pyeongchang led with 36 votes in the first round for the 2014 Games, followed by Sochi with 34 and Salzburg with 25. Sochi won 51-47 in the final ballot.

"I would have thought if Korea is going to win they've got to win on the first round, like they almost did each time in the previous two," Pound said.

The IOC has 110 members, but president Jacques Rogge doesn't vote and six members from France, Germany and South Korea are ineligible to vote while their cities are still in contention. Oswald has recused himself from voting to avoid any perception of conflict of interest after the international rowing federation, which he heads, signed a sponsorship deal with South Korean electronics giant Samsung.

That means 102 members will be eligible to vote in the first round. However, several members usually are ill or unable to attend the session, so the actual number is likely to be below 100.

A first-round winner is possible, though by no means certain.

"You can not play -- you have to vote immediately for the one you think is the best candidate," Oswald said.

On the morning of the vote, each city will have 45 minutes to make final presentations, followed by 15 minutes for questions and answers.

"You can't win in the presentations, but you can lose," Pound said. "Some people may say, 'I know the one I don't want, let's wait and see what the bells and whistles are on July 6.' It makes it that more unstable as an exercise."