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    Saturday, February 14, 1998

    German, Russian women favored

     NOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) -- Will the fickle snows again outfox the world's best biathletes?
     Wild swings in snow conditions have thus far stymied the top teams and produced dark horse winners in both the men's 20-kilometer and women's 15K individual events at the Winter Olympics.
     The favorites -- big question marks added -- in the women's 7.5K sprint Sunday are Germany's Ursula Disl and Martina Zellner, along with Galina Koukleva of Russia and Slovenia's Andreja Grasic.
     Of the world's best, only Disl has come through, taking the 15K bronze. The 27-year-old border guard picked up a silver and bronze at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and is third in World Cup standings.
     "What can I say? Everyone has to race under the same conditions," Disl said today.
     Koukleva, second in the world, finished 31st, and Zellner, seventh in the standings, was at 10th place in the earlier race, won by a hitherto little-noticed Bulgarian, Ekaterina Dafovska.
     Grasic, fourth in the standings, registered the fastest ski time in the 15K but missed four targets for a fourth place. Clean shooting Sunday could propel her to the top.
     Forecasts called for intermittent snow during Sunday's race, the third of six biathlon events at these Olympics. The course was pelted by rain and enveloped by fog, prompting some coaches to cut short a men's training session.
     Coaches say the rapidly changing snow conditions make it hard to apply the right waxes to skis, often crucial to victory in this sport which combines cross-country skiing and shooting.
     Snowfall and fog during competition hampers shooting at the small, 50 meters distant targets. Targets for prone position shooting are 1 3/4 inches in diameter, and 4 1/2 inches in diameter for the standing position.
     The Americans, near the bottom of the World Cup ladder, are entering veteran Stacey Wooley, 29, of Newbury, N.H., along with Kristina Sabasteanski, 28, of Richmond, Vt., and Deborah Nordyke, 35, of Anchorage, Alaska.
     The Americans fared poorly in the 15K, with coaches saying they didn't get the wax right. Probably America's best women's biathlete, Ntala Skinner, finished last of the three American entries. The 24-year-old from Sun Valley, Idaho, will sit out the sprint but compete in the relay next Thursday.
     In the 7.5K, competitors start at intervals of 30 seconds and have to climb a total of 853 feet over the course. They carry .22-caliber rifles, weighing about 7.7 pounds, and 10 rounds of ammunition.
     They fire twice in prone and standing positions at the 2.5K and 5K points on the course. In contrast to the individual competition, when a minute is added to total time for every shot missed, a 150-meter penalty loop must be skied for each miss in the sprint.