DURBAN, South Africa – Backed by presidents, prime ministers and sporting greats, the three cities vying for the 2018 Winter Olympics made their final pitches Wednesday in a contest between a third-time Asian bid from South Korea and two European challengers.
The German bid from Munich made the first presentation to the International Olympic Committee, and was followed by Annecy, France, and later by Pyeongchang, South Korea.
After close defeats for the 2010 and 2014 Games, Pyeongchang is considered the favorite. Munich, hoping to become the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Olympics, is the main challenger and Annecy the outsider.
Munich's presentation sought to counter the strengths of Pyeongchang, which has stressed its persistence in bidding three times over 10 years and its goal of taking the Winter Games to a new territory in Asia.
Thomas Bach, an IOC vice president and a senior leader of Munich's bid, noted that Germany was making its fourth Winter or Summer Olympics bid in recent years and that it has been more than 70 years since the country hosted the Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936.
"Today's decision is not about how many times someone has bid or how long we have been waiting, this decision today is about the merits and only the merits," he said. "The question is whether now to explore new territories again or time to strengthen our foundations. Today it's about the kind of athlete experience we want."
Annecy took a simpler, more human approach in its campaign for an "authentic" ecologically friendly games in the heart of the French Alps.
"The host city must have a soul," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said, a subtle dig at Annecy's bigger-budget and glitzier rivals.
Each city had 45 minutes to present its case, followed by 15 minutes for questions and answers.
The IOC will vote later in the day by secret ballot, with the winner expected to be announced by IOC President Jacques Rogge after 5 p.m. local time (1500 GMT).
With seven members absent, 95 IOC members will be eligible to vote in the first round. A majority is required for victory, meaning 48 votes would be enough to win.
If no majority is reached in the opening round, the city with the fewest votes is eliminated and the two remaining cities will go to a second and final ballot.
There has been speculation of a possible first-round win for Pyeongchang, which led in each of the first rounds in the votes for the 2010 and 2014 Games but then lost in the final rounds to Vancouver and Sochi.
The wild-card could be how many sympathy votes Annecy receives in the first round.
IOC votes for the Winter Games can be especially unpredictable, with many members hailing from countries with little or no winter sports tradition. Outside factors come more into play.
All three bid cities brought heavy hitters to the final presentations.
Pyeongchang's delegation includes South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and reigning Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na.
The IOC's trend in recent votes has been to move the games to new frontiers, taking the Winter Games to Russia (Sochi) for the first time in 2014 and giving South America its first Olympics with the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The Winter Games have been staged twice in Asia, both times in Japan -- Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998. Pyeongchang, whose slogan is "New Frontiers," says it can spread the Olympics to a lucrative new market in Asia and become a hub for winter sports in the region.
Munich contends the Winter Games need to go back to their spiritual home in Europe and to a country with a history and tradition of winter sports and big crowds.
German President Christian Wulff offered the government's full backing and financial guarantees for Munich.
"Place your trust in us for the 2018 Winter Games," he told IOC members. "We will turn it into a joyful, emotional and enthusiastic games in an open country."
Football great Franz Beckenbauer, who organized the 2006 World Cup in Germany and hails from Munich, said his one regret was never having played for his country in the Olympics.
"Munich is a fantastic place to host mega events," he said. "We know how to organize a tournament. The World Cup was a nice little party, with millions of people in full stadiums and in the streets.
"We had our summer dream, now I would like to invite you to the winter dream in 2018."
Munich played up its party atmosphere, citing the annual Octoberfest and the reputation for enthusiastic and packed crowds for sports events. The presentation included a man in traditional Bavarian dress yodeling. Munich Lord Mayor Christian Ude held up a beer keg mallet.
"We are not just promising full stadia, we guarantee full stadia," said bid chair Katarina Witt, a two-time Olympic figure skating champion.
Munich also highlighted the financial clout of German companies, a subtle dig at the influence of South Korean Olympic sponsor Samsung. Munich Bid CEO Bernhard Schwank said German firms provide half of the sponsorship revenues of the seven international winter sports federations.
"Can you imagine what the Winter Games in Munich could do for the Olympic movement?" he said. "Revenue would dramatically increase."
Garmisch-Partenkirchen would stage snow events in 2018, while Munich would use many of the facilities from the 1972 Summer Games for the ice competitions.
The Annecy bid, which got off to a slow start and struggled through budget problems and leadership changes, sought to distinguish itself sharply from its rivals in Wednesday's presentation.
"Annecy's bid is an authentic bid," said Fillon, the prime minister. "It is a bid from the mountains and its inhabitants."
Fillon, who came to Durban after French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose to stay at home, insisted the bid was a "national priority" for France.
Annecy showed videos with sweeping vistas of Mont Blanc, described the region as the world's No. 1 winter sports destination and reminded members that France hosted the first Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924.
French Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno said Annecy would set a "new benchmark for environmental responsibility."
Annecy Mayor Jean-Luc Rigaut told members to "imagine yourself overlooking the beauty of the lake, eating our great French food."