FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2017 file photo, Kim Bo-reum of South Korea competes during the women's 3000 meter race of the ISU world single distances speed skating championships at Gangneung Oval in Gangneung, South Korea. With the Winter Olympics just a year
Ahn Young-joon, File
February 15, 2017

SAPPORO, Japan (AP) With the Winter Olympics just a year and a short distance away, the Asian Winter Games will be the ideal stage for the continent's leading winter athletes to fine tune for Pyeongchang 2018.

The eighth Asian Winter Games will open Sunday in Sapporo, on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, and run through Feb. 26, with more than 2,000 athletes from 31 countries competing in five sports, 11 disciplines and 64 events.

Japan, South Korea, Kazakhstan and China have traditionally been the dominant countries at the games but with Pyeongchang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022 hosting the next two Winter Olympics, athletes in the region are making a major push to be more competitive in global terms.

''China is expecting to introduce 300 million people to winter sports during this period, so the next few years are pivotal in establishing a vast, new winter sports scene outside of the traditional markets of North America and Europe,'' Olympic Council of Asia President Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah said.

The Sapporo Games will also feature athletes from Australia and New Zealand competing, bringing an Oceania element to event.

At the request of the Australian Olympic Committee, the Olympic Council of Asia and the Sapporo 2017 organizing committee agreed to allow athletes from the two countries to take part as guest athletes in individual sports only.

They won't be eligible to win medals, but will gain experience by competing against world-class winter sports athletes from the region an in the time zone that will be the same as the Olympics.

''Their participation will add value to the Games and further expand the footprint of Asia,'' Sheikh Ahmad said.

South Korea, the next Olympic host, will have 142 athletes taking part and has set an ambitious goal of 15 gold medals and second place in the medals standings.

Many of South Korea's golds are expected to come in speed skating, a sport the country has excelled at over the years.

Lee Seung-hoon, the 2010 Olympic champion in the men's 10,000 meters, is currently the world No. 1 in mass start. Kim Bo-reum, an emerging star on the women's side, leads all female skaters in mass start this season.

South Korea's men's ice hockey team, meanwhile, is coached by former NHL defenseman Jim Paek. With an automatic berth in the Pyeongchang Games, Paek's team is in Japan aiming to boost its competitiveness.

Chinese short track speed skaters, who captured six gold medals at the last two Winter Olympics, will be strong medal contenders in Sapporo.

Among them are Han Tianyu, who won the men's 1,500 meters at the 2016 world championships, and Wu Dajing, who claimed the men's 500 meter title at the 2016 World Cup in Shanghai. World champion Fan Kexin will be among the goal medal contenders in the women's 500 meters.

Japan is targeting medals in events including ski jumping, speed skating and figure skating, although Sochi Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu is sitting out the Games. In his place, Japan national champion Shoma Uno is among the favorites.

Australia's delegation features a number of experienced athletes, including three-time Olympic snowboarder Holly Crawford, short track skater Deanna Lockett and Ben Sim, a Vancouver Olympian in cross country skiing.

The games have not been without controversy stemming from recent and older geopolitical tensions. Organizers were forced to ensure a book denying the 1937 Nanjing Massacre will be removed from guest rooms at a hotel to be used as a dormitory in the Athletes' Village.

APA Group, the operator of the hotel chain, has been under fire after it was revealed it had distributed the book, which was written by Chief Executive Toshio Motoya, in its hotel rooms. The book claims the Nanjing Massacre never happened. China says the massacre resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 people.

The Japanese government decided to allow North Korean athletes and officials to enter the country to take part in the Games despite Japan's entry ban on North Korean citizens.

Tokyo will treat the athletes as an exception to its punitive measure taken as part of its sanctions in response to Pyongyang's nuclear tests and rocket launches.

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