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    Monday, February 9, 1998

    Weather turns first biathlon race into a 'roll of the dice'

     NOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) -- Thick, heavy snow turned the first biathlon event of the Winter Olympics into what an American coach called a "roll of the dice."
     That roll ended in a way no one would have predicted.
     Bulgaria won its first Winter Games gold medal when Yekaterina Dafovska, ranked 51st in the World Cup standings, put together an inspired combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting Monday.
     Dafovska finished in 54 minutes, 52 seconds, nearly 20 seconds ahead of runner-up Yelena Petrova of Ukraine. Ursula Disl of Germany was 8 seconds behind Petrova. All three missed their targets just once in 20 shots, despite the heavy snow.
     "I had dreamed about hearing the Bulgarian anthem at the Olympics one day. I didn't realize it would come so soon," the 22-year-old Dafovska said. "I still can't believe I won an Olympic gold medal."
     Disl had victory within her rifle sights when on her last shot she veered off target. Throwing her head backward, she let out a cry.
     "I was a bit mad at missing that 20th shot, but that's normal for me," she said with a laugh. "Anyway, a bronze is a bronze. I'm happy."
     Stacey Wooley, 29, of Newbury, N.H., was the top American finisher. She was 55th.
     "It's pretty clear that we were disappointed and we're scratching our heads a little bit," coach Timothy Derrick said.
     So were a lot of others, including Sweden's Magdalena Forsberg, who ranks No. 1 in World Cup standings but finished 14th. Russia's Albina Akhatova and Corinne Niogret of France also weren't up to the challenge.
     "You combine three things -- a very difficult course, very slow skiing conditions and not hitting the wax just right," Derrick said, noting that top skiers normally finish the 15-kilometer event in around 40 minutes.
     Although snowfall tapered off toward the end of the race, the sluggish snow sapped energy quickly, while some had to wipe snowflakes from their eyes before firing. Several competitors collapsed at the finis line.
     "I just had a perfect combination of shooting and skiing," Dafovska said.
     The Bulgarians had more to celebrate as Pavlina Filipova finished fourth and Andreja Grasic of Slovenia, who had been touted as a probable silver medalist, wound up fifth.