LONDON -- From the moment in December that Edgar Grospiron resigned, throwing Annecy's bid for the 2018 Winter Games into turmoil, it was never quite certain whether the campaign from the French Alps would ever again regain enough balance to again become a credible contender. At times, to be frank, it was like watching a train wreck. The Annecy bid stumbled along for weeks without a leader. Finally, Charles Beigbeder, a French entrepreneur, was convinced to take the job. Budget-wise, they've acknowledged many times since, they are running on the low side. They have struggled to cobble together a narrative.
On Thursday, however, here before the SportAccord convention of influential sports leaders from around the world, it all came together.
For arguably the first time, the Annecy campaign put together a coherent and credible pitch for a village-style Alpine Games: A "bid from the mountains with the athletes for the future," with an emphasis on what they called an "authentic" Winter Games.
"It is a much better race than many in the IOC thought it would be six months ago," Craig Reedie, the British IOC executive board member who helped lead London's winning 2012 bid, said after watching Annecy's presentation, along with those from rivals Munich and Pyeongchang.
"The two front-runners," he said, "have developed extremely well."
And, Reedie said, "The improvement in Annecy is -- "and here he paused, searching for just the right word -- "marked."
Annecy's chances? There aren't even 100 days to go until the IOC's July 6 vote for 2018 in Durban, South Africa.
Does Annecy have enough on stage and screen to overcome the strong presentations from Munich and Pyeongchang?
The odds remain long, particularly because Annecy was yet again lacking again on Thursday the key element -- the in-person presence of Jean-Claude Killy, the superstar of French and Olympic winter sport, who appeared Thursday only in a short video?
Yet for Annecy -- indeed, for the IOC -- the issue has always been to make this 2018 derby a three-horse race, not just two.
"It's a three bid-city race. That's clear," Beigbeder asserted at a late afternoon news conference, adding a moment later, "They have to choose one, meaning the IOC, "and we have to make a difference."
Annecy went first Thursday. Then Munich. Then Pyeongchang.
No surprise, Munich's presentation proved robust. Following a strong presentation in March to the IOC's evaluation commission, the Munich team proved strong here in London, too.
The chair of the Munich bid, Katarina Witt, in a pinstriped black Strenesse coat-dress and stunningly high Michael Kors pumps, in her best breathy stage voice, kicked things off by unveiling the "vision" of a "festival of friendship in a setting that reveals the full possibilities of Olympic sustainability for all the world to see."
From there, the Munich team talked up money and geography.
Ian Robertson, BMW's head of marketing and sales, noted the Munich-based company now supports not only the bid but London 2012, the U.S Olympic Committee, national Olympic committees in France, Greece, China and several international sports federations. German business, he said, underwrites 50 percent of the revenues of the seven sports on the Winter Games program.
This winter, he said, Germany played host to 12 World Cup events and three world championships that attracted nearly one million spectators and a cumulative German television audience of over one billion viewers. "That's the kind of reach sponsors want," he said.
Back to Katarina for Munich's line of the day, and an unsaid but nonetheless obvious poke at Pyeongchang.
"… When you choose a host city for the Olympic Games -- Summer or Winter -- it is about more than just geography," she said, Pyeongchang touting "new horizons," the promise of taking the Winter Games to new markets in Asia.
She said, "It is about the kind of experience the athletes of the future should have," a suggestion that there might be a livelier place to spend 17 days in February -- say, Munich, one of the world's most interesting cities -- than, oh, Pyeongchang.
Which is why, the Koreans said as part of a powerful performance of their own, they've planned for a "Best of Korea" experience in Pyeongchang. Already, they said, they've signed up 39 companies with 120 brands -- world-class amenities, dining, shopping, entertainment and more.
You want to talk money?
The Koreans clearly had been anticipating the German strategy. Let's put it this way: if 50 percent of your portfolio rested in one stock, wouldn't you kinda want to diversify?
"We believe," Theresa Rah, the Pyeongchang director of communications, said from the stage, "that diversifying the financial support of winter sport from new markets makes sense for the winter sport industry, federations, the athletes and the Olympic and Paralympic movements."
By 2030, according to an Asian Development Bank Study, Asia will comprise 43 percent of worldwide consumption. From 1990 to 2008, the middle class in Asia grew by 30 percent, and spent an average of an additional $1.7 trillion annually. "No other region in the world even comes close," Rah said.
The South Korean sports and culture Minister, Byoung-gug Choung, announced Thursday that the government would invest $500 million to help promote winter sports and groom Korean athletes in a program dubbed "Drive the Dream" from 2012-2018.
Also in the works -- a $1.8 million plan to pay for visits from national Olympic committee officials from 2012-2017, and a $1.05 million plan for trips by international federation experts.
Completed in October, 2009: the Alpensia resort in Pyeongchang, at a cost of $1.4 billion.
You want to talk geography?
"The argument," Rah said, in front of a map of the world that showed the Winter Games having visited Asia only twice, both times in Japan, in 1972 and 1998, "really isn't about 'new versus old' or 'traditional markets versus new markets' or even clever metaphors about 'roots and new horizons.' No.
"The real decision is about maximizing the opportunity for winter sport for as many young people as possible, wherever they may be."
All of which surely made for Pyeongchang's counter-punch of the day.
But not the line of the day.
That went to the French sports minister, Chantal Jouanno, as part of an again-relevant Annecy bid.
"It is a great pleasure to be here in London," she said, "a city that in the sporting context has taught us French two things:
"That favorites don't always win," a reference to the 2012 contest. Paris was heavily favored to win. Instead, London did.
When the laughter in the hall died down, the minister, smiling, finished: "And that any bidding city must understand the challenges sport faces -- and offer a true global vision to resolve them."
Of special note:
The Korean presentation opened with Yang Ho Cho, the Pyeongchang 2018 chairman, saying:
"Before I begin, please allow me to send our deepest sympathies to the people and the [national Olympic committees] of both New Zealand and Japan.
"The world is with you, and we look forward to seeing your great teams in London next year."