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Pyeongchang marks one-year countdown to Winter Games

By Peter Rutherford

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Pyeongchang has waited a long time to host the Winter Olympics, suffering two failed bids before securing success, but on Thursday the South Korean alpine town's dream came a step closer to reality with the one-year countdown to the 2018 Games.

Pyeongchang will stage Asia's first Winter Games outside Japan and kick off an Asian Olympic cycle that reflects the region's growing influence on world sport with Tokyo hosting the 2020 Summer Games and Beijing holding the 2022 Winter Olympics.

In a video message at a countdown ceremony held at the Gangneung Hockey Centre, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach invited the athletes of the world to come to Pyeongchang in a year's time.

"For the first time, the magic of Olympic sport on snow and ice will come to Korea," he said at a ceremony featuring taekwondo demonstrations, K-Pop and traditional Korean music.

Bach also thanked the Korean government and business community for their support and said he was in no doubt the country would deliver a great Olympics.

"Korea always keeps its promises," he added.

Located in the mountainous Gangwon Province, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul, Pyeongchang failed in bids for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games.

But Pyeongchang organizing chief Lee Hee-beom said the fact that the next three Olympic Games would be staged in North East Asia was a clear signal of the region's strength.

"We can say the era of Asia in sport is taking place," Lee told a news conference in the coastal town of Gangneung, which will stage the ice hockey, curling, figure skating, speed and short track skating events.

"It's Pyeongchang's vision to open a new horizon of winter sports in North East Asia and the world."

The build-up to the Games has been anything but smooth with organizers forced to overcome initial reluctance from corporate sponsors as well as a political influence peddling scandal that threatened to taint the Games.

'HOSTING GRAND SLAM'

Concerns from the international community about the security threat posed by North Korea were also raised at the news conference, but POCOG chief Lee sought to ease concerns.

"Any athlete from any country is allowed to participate in the 2018 Games as long as they promote peace," he said. "North Korea is no exception."

Lee also conceded that while the ongoing political crisis involving President Park Geun-hye had had some negative impact he said preparations had not been hindered.

Park was impeached over accusations she colluded with long-time friend Choi Soon-sil to pressure big businesses into donating to two foundations set up to back the president's policy initiatives.

Local media reports suggested that contracts for the Pyeongchang Games had been tainted by the scandal but Lee reiterated that proper procedures had been followed.

"I know people expressed some concerns about the current political situation and how it might affect the Olympics," Lee said. "But it hasn't had an impact on our preparations."

Taking place 30 years after Seoul claimed its place on the global sporting stage by hosting the 1988 Summer Games, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will see South Korea join an elite group of countries to complete the 'hosting grand slam'.

Only Japan, Germany, Italy and France have hosted both Winter and Summer Games, a soccer World Cup and a world athletics championships. The United States will also complete the set when it stages track and field's global showpiece event in 2021.

A traditional powerhouse in short track, South Korea has won 21 of its 26 Winter Games gold medals in the sport, with four more coming from speed skating.

Figure skating 'Queen' Kim Yuna took the other.

Now an honorable ambassador for the 2018 Games, Kim told reporters that the athletes would be starting to feel the nerves with the countdown starting in earnest.

"The athletes are probably feeling nervous the most right now," she said. "All athletes from both popular and unpopular winter sports are training very hard for the last remaining year, so it’ll be great to have many (people) visit Pyeongchang and cheer for them."

The Games are scheduled to take place from Feb. 9-25 next year.

(Editing by Greg Stutchbury and Ed Osmond)