Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah claims Sapporo 2017 will lead to a growth in winter sport across Asia ©Getty Images

Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah believes the Asian Winter Games beginning next week in Sapporo could mark the start of "unprecedented growth" in snow and ice sport across the continent.

Five sports, 11 disciplines and 64 events are due to be contested at the eight-day Games, which are due to begin on Sunday (February 19) in the Japanese city.

It will be the first edition of the Games for six years since Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan shared the 2011 edition.

Sheikh Ahmad believes that the two upcoming Winter Olympics in Asia - in Pyeongchang in 2018 and then in Beijing in 2022 - provides a special opportunity for the region.

"The Sapporo Asian Winter Games will be a very exciting and significant event for the whole of Asia," said the Kuwaiti, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee and President of the Association of National Olympic Committees.

"They will take place just one year before the next Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Korea, in February 2018 so will provide the perfect stepping stone and preparation for athletes, coaches and team officials alike.

"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.

"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."

Final preparations are now taking place before the Asian Winter Games ©Sapporo 2017/Facebook
Final preparations are now taking place before the Asian Winter Games ©Sapporo 2017/Facebook

Only four Asian countries won medals at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

China claimed three gold, four silver and two bronze medals.

South Korea won three gold, three silver and two bronze while Japan secured one gold, four silver and three bronze.

Kazakhstan also enjoyed a solitary third place finish.

For the first time, athletes from Australia and New Zealand are also due to participate at the Sapporo Games.

They will not be eligible to win medals, however.

"The OCA and Sapporo organisers 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.

"We will be using several of the venues from the Sapporo 1972 [Winter Olympics], and their legacy lives strong among the winter sports enthusiasts of Sapporo, Hokkaido and Japan.

"The OCA’s eighth Asian Winter Games will add to this legacy, and further cement Sapporo’s reputation as a top-class winter sports hub in Japan, Asia and the world."