2-horse race looms for 2018 Winter Olympics
There was no transcendent Rio moment this time, no dramatic shift in momentum to swing the Olympic bid race. The campaign for the 2018 Winter Games goes into the final stretch much as it was before - with the South Korean bid from Pyeongchang in the front and Munich pushing hard to overtake the favorites.
Bid leaders from Pyeongchang, Munich and Annecy, France, made their case to International Olympic Committee members Wednesday and Thursday, and will focus on preparing for the final presentations and vote on July 6 in Durban, South Africa.
The two days of meetings with IOC members consolidated Pyeongchang's longtime status as the city to beat, but also provided Munich a tangible boost as a serious challenger and gave Annecy hope to believe it still has a chance.
''The French are working well and trying hard, but I think very honestly it will be between Germany and Korea,'' Swiss IOC executive board member Rene Fasel told The Associated Press.
Another senior board member, Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico, agreed.
''I think this one is a close race between the top two,'' he told the AP.
Fasel said there is ''no question'' that Pyeongchang remains the favorite. The South Koreans, bidding for a third consecutive time after narrow defeats for the 2010 and 2014 Games, are pushing the case of taking the Olympics to a new winter sports market in Asia.
''I don't think it's that easy,'' said Gerhard Heiberg, an executive board member from Norway. ''It's closer than what people say.''
Munich says it's time to bring the event back to winter sports-loving Germany for the first time in 80 years, while Annecy proposes ''authentic'' village-style games in the heart of the Alps.
In many ways, the decision comes down to whether the IOC wants to continue the trend of moving to new territories or return to its European roots.
The geographical argument has pull with Fasel who, as head of the international ice hockey federation, is eager to promote his sport in Asia.
''When the Germans are organizing something, it's 100 percent, no doubt,'' Fasel said. ''It's very precise, well done and well presented, but the Koreans are here three times. It's time to go a little bit to Asia. Running a third time is for sure an advantage.''
The bid cities made closed-door presentations to 88 of the IOC's 110 members on Wednesday. On Thursday, more than 60 members visited the candidates' exhibition rooms at a Lausanne hotel, viewing high-tech digital videos and maps and asking detailed questions about the bid proposals.
The members have less than two months to absorb the information before casting their secret ballots in Durban.
A voting majority is required for victory. Pyeongchang led both times after the first round of previous ballots, but ended up losing in the final round to Vancouver for the 2010 Games and Sochi, Russia, for 2014. The Koreans would hope to secure enough votes in the first round this time.
Voting for the Winter Games can be unpredictable because many of the IOC members come from countries with little winter sports interest.
''A lot of IOC members vote not with their heads but with their hearts,'' Heiberg said. ''It's a question on the emotional side, the personal side. That's why it's very difficult to predict the outcome.''
This was the second time the IOC has arranged a special meeting with bid cities ahead of the vote, and the first time for the Winter Games. Two years ago, the first such meeting was pivotal in giving Rio de Janeiro a surge of support that carried it to victory a few months later in the vote for the 2016 Summer Games.
There was no game-changing moment this time.
''I don't think there were major seismic shifts yesterday,'' Carrion said. ''Last time, there was a marked shift of momentum in favor of Rio. I don't sense that this time, but you never know.''
Members said Pyeongchang did what it needed to maintain its strong position, but the South Koreans downplayed their presumed favorite status.
''We're very satisfied,'' bid chairman Cho Yang-Ho said. ''We presented our message. Now we just have to keep going, keep running. We cannot stop. Even if we have more confidence than before, we still cannot relax. We have to go the same pace all the way to Durban.''
The mood in the Munich camp was ebullient, with the feeling that the German bid had picked up considerable steam.
''What we hear is that we got our message across of modern, sustainable, magic Winter Games full of Olympic atmosphere,'' said Thomas Bach, an IOC vice president who is a senior figure in the Munich bid.
Bach said he wasn't concerned with predictions of who is leading or not.
''This is a marathon,'' he said. ''You have to cross the finish line first. It's not about leading halfway or at 30 kilometers. We can go with full confidence to Durban that we can make it. It will be a tough race until the end.''
Annecy bid leader Charles Beigbeder said he thought the French candidacy, once considered a longshot at best, was a legitimate contender.
''We have demonstrated that technically there is no more issue,'' he said. ''Now this is behind us and everything starts. We are already in the mood of being an OCOG (organizing committee). We are absolutely confident and we strongly believe it's time for Annecy.''