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    Sunday, February 22, 1998

    Disl, Germans lead way in biathlon

     NOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) -- When the snow and fog cleared at the biathlon course, Ursula Disl had forged a place in history.
     Disl won three medals at the Nagano Games, including a gold in the 30-kilometer relay. That gave the German star six medals in three games, the most ever in the sport.
     "To have a gold in the Olympics is the greatest thing one can have in one's life in sport," said Disl, who missed a gold by seven-tenths of a second in the 7.5K sprint. She also won a bronze in the 15K.
     While Disl made history, Germany again dominated the relay events and archrival Russia won a gold, silver and bronze.
     But it was the Norwegians, who hadn't stepped onto the victory podium since 1984, who surprised by winning both men's individual events along with two silvers and a bronze.
     They also came close in the men's 30-kilometer relay, with anchor Ole Einar Bjoerndalen finishing 20 seconds behind Germany's Frank Luck after having to overcome slow skiing and poor shooting by his teammates.
     Bjoerndalen provided a memorable victory in the 10K sprint, which was halted due to heavy snow and fog. It was the first mid-race stoppage of an Olympic biathlon event since 1972.
     Bjoerndalen was leading when the race was stopped, then returned the next day to win the whole thing.
     "I had perfect skiing and the best shooting I've ever done," Bjoerndalen said.
     The biathlon saw its share of surprises. Unheralded Bulgaria won its first Winter Games gold, while top biathletes such as Germany's Ricco Gross, Russia's Victor Maigourov, Magdalena Forsberg of Sweden and Raphael Poiree of France failed to win individual medals.
     The 27-year-old Gross, ranked no. 1 in World Cup standings, did emerge as biathlon's third-biggest Olympic medal winner, with three golds and two silvers in three Olympics. Alexander Tikhanov of the Soviet Union won four golds and a silver in four Winter Games.
     The United States, which had shown improvement in world rankings in recent years, fared poorly at Nagano. The Americans finished next-to-last in the men's relay and 15th out of 17 in the women's. Individual performances were nearly as lackluster.
     Some of the American biathletes were envious of competitors in Europe who receive full backing from governments and private sponsors.
     "They're professional -- they get cars, free this, free that, and lots of money. The country respects their sport," Stacey Wooley of Lebanon, N.H., said of the Germans. "They have pressure the year around. They are used to pressure and can perform under pressure."
     Off the course, the discovery of five unspent bullets in a locker room wastebasket prompted police to issue a stern warning about control of rifles and ammunition. Japan has stringent gun-control laws and biathletes were parted from their rifles after every race and training session.
     "They prefer to bring them back to their hotel rooms. They like to pick them up a hundred times a day," said Anders Besseberg, president of the International Biathlon Union. "Yes, they like to sleep with their rifles."
     The biathlon was run on one of the world's toughest courses, set inside a slope of Mount Kenashi in this hot springs resort about an hour's drive from Nagano.