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With less than two years until the International Olympic Committee's application deadline for the 2002 Winter Olympics passes, Salt Lake organizers say a northern neighbor could prove to be a significant competitor.

The city of Quebec, the cultural heart of the French-speaking province of Quebec, has launched a bid for the Winter Games that could prove worrisome to Salt Lake City, said Tom Welch, bid committee president. He told the bid committee's board this week that he is concerned Quebec's bid might split the North American IOC vote.In its unique voting tradition, IOC members divide votes among candidates in early voting rounds in a show of respect and support for bidders. That sometimes hurts candidates. For example, Salt Lake City was almost dropped in the first round of voting in June 1991 in Birmingham, England, after a tie vote with Aosta, Italy. In the end, Salt Lake City came in second to Nagano, Japan.

The IOC will chose the 2002 Winter Olympics site at meetings in Budapest in 1995.

Quebec's organizers, who still must win the honor to be a candidate from the Canadian Olympic Association, believe 2002 is the right time for the Olympics to return to North America and Canada. That will be six years after the Atlanta Summer Olympics.

"The 2002 Olympics should be back in North America," said Rene Paquet, president of Quebec Winter Games 2002.

A Quebec bid would take away many of Salt Lake City's bragging rights used in past IOC campaigns, including the fact it would be the largest city ever to host the Winter Games. That meant more hotel rooms and more Olympic exposure to more people. That argument may end if Quebec becomes Canada's choice for the Olympics. Salt Lake City's population is similar to Quebec's, although Quebec's metropolitan area has fewer people.

There are similarities between the Quebec and Salt Lake bid. Both would house athletes at a university; they would use nearby ski resorts with track records in international ski events; and both already have a main ice-skating arena in place.

Quebec may have an edge with its tradition in grass-roots winter sports participation, particularly skating and hockey. Salt Lake's edge may be bobsled-luge track and ski jumps under construction.

Paquet said that most proposed Olympic venues are within a reasonable distance from the proposed athlete's village. The farthest is 55 minutes away compared to Salt Lake's farthest venue in Park City - some 45 minutes from downtown.

The Canadian Olympic Association will vote in December for Canada's Olympic candidate. Quebec is hoping to win out over competitor Calgary, because that city has already hosted the Games and has become a sports training center in western Canada, Paquet said.

Paquet said his city hopes to up grade facilities and establish more athlete training opportunities in eastern Canada.

While Quebec may be an obstacle in early IOC voting in 1995, Welch said Salt Lake City's bid should win because of the friendships developed with IOC members and long-term commitment to winter sports. It will also be the third time that Salt Lake City has asked the IOC for the Winter Games.

"After Birmingham, people realized that if they wanted the 2002 Games they would have to climb over our body to get there," Welch said.

Welch said he believes that is the primary reason that Ostersund, Sweden - Salt Lake City's chief competitor - withdrew from the 2002 bid and will seek the 2006 Games. Welch said he would rather compete against Quebec than Ostersund. Because of the Ostersund move, travel expenses have been cut in the bid committee's $725,000 budget approved for 1992-93. Officials said they don't now need to send as many people to Olympic meetings to lobby IOC members.

"But there are still too many (competitors)," Welch told the board.

Bids are also being considered by Tatry, Czechoslovakia, and Lahti, Finland. A joint bid between Italy, Austria and Slovenia may also be submitted to the IOC. Political unrest in eastern Europe may affect the Czechoslovakian and Slovenian bids. Italy may not want to participate in the joint bid because Milan is competing for the 2000 Summer Games, Welch said.