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Tight race for 2014 Winter Games

July 01, 2007|From the Associated Press

LONDON — One bid offers a traditional Alpine setting in the heart of Europe. Another promises a unique coastal and mountain layout on the Black Sea. A third trumpets the opening of a winter sports frontier in Asia.

The International Olympic Committee is faced with three very different proposals for the 2014 Winter Games, and there is no telling which will prevail as the bid campaign enters its final days.

The three finalists -- Salzburg, Austria; Sochi, Russia; and Pyeongchang, South Korea -- all have a chance of winning when the IOC votes by secret ballot on Wednesday in Guatemala City.

"I suppose it will be very close," IOC President Jacques Rogge said. "I expect it to be as close as Singapore."

Two years ago in Singapore, London edged Paris in the final round for the 2012 Summer Olympics. That was the most competitive and glitzy bid contest in Olympic history, featuring five of the world's best-known cities, including New York, Madrid and Moscow.

The 2014 race has paled in comparison, generating little buzz outside the three bidding countries. The stakes, however, are high as the IOC considers whether to take the Winter Olympics back to their European roots or into new territory.

The candidates are leaving nothing to chance. All three are sending their top national government leaders -- including Russian President Vladimir Putin -- to push their case to the voters in Guatemala. They are mindful of how then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair's presence in Singapore played a key role in London's victory.

"This is not a Muppet show," Sochi bid chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said. "Russia is very serious about this. For President Putin, it is his personal challenge. He's really passionate about this."

Under tight rules enacted after the Salt Lake City bidding scandal, the candidates have had limited contact with the IOC members. Visits to the bid cities were prohibited. In Guatemala, bid leaders will be free to lobby in the hotel hallways, bars and dining rooms. Also crucial will be the cities' final 45-minute presentations on the day of the vote.

"What makes really the difference is the confidence the IOC members have in the bid committee, the confidence in the people," Rogge said. "The human factor is a very important one, and I think that will make the difference."

Austria has staged the Winter Games twice, both times in Innsbruck (1964 and 1976), and has hosted about 250 world championships and World Cup events in the last 10 years.

Russia, winner of 293 Winter Olympic medals, has never held the Winter Games. South Korea would be the first Asian country outside of Japan (Sapporo 1972 and Nagano 1998) to get the Games.

Salzburg was once considered the front-runner but lost steam after a bid leadership change, low public support ratings in an IOC survey and the fallout from the Austrian doping scandal at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

"Six months ago, Salzburg was the favorite," said IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway, one of the chief organizers of the 1994 Lillehammer Games. "Things have happened since then. Today it's not the case anymore.

"I think it is very, very open at this moment. A lot has to do with the heart and not so much with the brains."

In a June 4 technical report, the IOC gave Pyeongchang the best overall review. But that review might not mean much ultimately.

"Since the publication of the evaluation commission report, we were a bit elated, but the same time humbled," said Pyeongchang bid chairman Han Seung-soo, a former Korean parliamentarian.

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