KUWAIT, Feb. 13 (Xinhua) -- The President of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah says he believes this month's Asian Winter Games (AWG) in Japan will signal the start of a period of unprecedented growth in winter sports throughout the continent.
The OCA's 8th AWG will open in Sapporo on Sunday, February 19, and run through to Sunday, February 26. There will be five sports, 11 disciplines and 64 events, and 31 delegations are expected to take part.
"The Sapporo Asian Winter Games will be a very exciting and significant event for the whole of Asia," Sheikh Ahmad said.
"They will take place just one year before the next Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February 2018 so will provide the prefect stepping stone and preparation for athletes, coaches and team officials alike," he added.
Sheikh Ahmad also noted the significance of the Games remaining in Asia for the 2022 edition of the Winter Olympics.
"The 2022 Winter Olympics will also be held in Asia - in Beijing, which will become the first city to host the Summer and Winter Olympic Games," he noted.
The official also stressed China's contribution to the popularization of winter sports.
"China is expected 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."
Sheikh Ahmad also believes the participation of athletes from Australia and New Zealand in the Sapporo Asian Winter Games further strengthens the unity and solidarity of the Olympic Movement.
At the request of the Australian Olympic Committee, the COA and Sapporo 2017 organizing committee (SAWGOC) agreed to allow athletes from these two Oceania Confederation NOCs to join the Asian Winter Games as guest athletes in individual sports only.
They will not be eligible to win medals, but will gain experience for the challenges ahead by competing in world-class winter sports venues against strong athletes from Japan, China, South Korea and Kazakhstan, among others.
"The OCA and Sapporo organizers are delighted to welcome the guest athletes from Australia and New Zealand," added Sheikh Ahmad.
"Their participation will add value to the Games and further expand the footprint of Asia, not only in terms of winter sports competition but also for friendship, peace and understanding. All parties will benefit from their presence," said the OCA chief.
This will be the fourth Asian Winter Games hosted by Japan, following the first two editions in Sapporo in 1986 and 1990 and Aomori in 2003.
The sports will be staged in 12 venues, with 11 in Sapporo and speed skating at Obihiro, 200km from the host city.