The site of the 1998 Winter Games will be either Salt Lake City or Nagano, Japan, according to a prediction by the international relations director of the United States Olympic Committee.

That shouldn't come as any surprise to Salt Lake City's own Olympic boosters, who have long considered the Japanese city their most formidable competition.The latest speculation comes after the withdrawal of Sochi, Soviet Union, as a candidate for the 1998 Winter Games, which left Salt Lake City; Nagano; Aosta, Italy; Jaca, Spain; and Ostersund, Sweden, in the race.

The USOC's Alfredo LaMonte said he believes the European cities will be the first eliminated when the International Olympic Committee meets next month in Birmingham, England, to make its choice.

"Now that Sochi is gone, my prediction is Aosta, Jaca and Ostersund will go out in that order," LaMonte said in a telephone interview from USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But that's where LaMonte's crystal-ball gazing ended. He did not foresee which of the two remaining cities - Salt Lake City or Nagano - would emerge as the host of the 1998 Winter Games.

LaMonte's vision is a little different than that of Olympic marketing expert Barry Frank, who said recently Salt Lake City and Ostersund are the main competitors.

Frank said protests by environmental activists at various proposed venues have put Nagano out of the running and helped boost Salt Lake City's odds of winning to 50-50.

LaMonte, however, said Japan's economic strength makes it more likely to be chosen over Ostersund. The Swedish city is considered by some to be a sentimental favorite because it has bid unsuccessfully so many times.

The IOC selects the Olympics site by elimination, dropping the lowest vote-getter in each round until only one city remains.

The balloting is political, especially as the favorites of IOC members are eliminated, forcing them to turn to their second, third and possibly fourth choices.

It's not clear what effect Sochi's decision to drop out before the IOC's June 15 vote will have on the competition between the remaining cities. LaMonte said Sochi would have been the first city eliminated anyway.

"Sochi was not really a factor," he said. "Sochi's dropping out will only increase the need for Salt Lake City's strategy to look for second-round votes."

Tom Welch, chairman of the Salt Lake City Bid Committee for the Olympic Winter Games, believes Sochi would have lasted at least one round. But he declined to speculate on which city might have been eliminated first.

"There's a lot to be said for encouraging a city from the Soviet Union to be involved in the Olympic process, especially when they're facing such difficult times," Welch said.