Winter Asian Games kick off with opening ceremony in Sapporo

Members of North Korean team wave their national flags as they march at the opening ceremony of the Asian Winter Games at Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, northern Japan, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Members of Chinese team wave their national flags as they march at the opening ceremony of the Asian Winter Games at Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, northern Japan, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Members of Chinese team wave their national flags as they march at the opening ceremony of the Asian Winter Games at Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, northern Japan, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Members of North Korean team wave their national flags as they march at the opening ceremony of the Asian Winter Games at Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, northern Japan, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

SAPPORO, Japan — The Asian Winter Games officially got underway Sunday with an opening ceremony that united winter athletes from the world's most populous continent.

With the Winter Olympics just a year and a short distance away in South Korea, the continent's leading winter athletes will use the games to fine tune for Pyeongchang 2018.

"These games will show the potential of Asia to the world," Katsuhiro Akimoto, head of Sapporo's organizing committee, said. "We have great expectations for the spectacular athletic performances of over 2,000 athletes."

Among the dignitaries at Sapporo Dome were Crown Prince Naruhito, IOC vice president John Coates and Olympic Council of Asia President Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah.

The games run through Feb. 26 and feature more than 2,000 athletes from 31 countries competing in five sports, 11 disciplines and 64 events.

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

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.

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.

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