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    Thursday, January 8, 1998

    Biathlon event shoots down business

     NOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) -- The Winter Olympics may put this hot springs and ski resort on the international sports map, but villagers are up in arms over rifle-toting biathletes shooting up the hillsides.
     Japan's strict gun control laws have presented officials with a host of difficulties -- and possibly a multimillion-dollar hit for local businesses.
     Mitsu Sato, head of the village's Olympic preparations, said two lifts and a ski slope will be shut during the games because they fall within a 770-yard safety zone that by law must be established around shooting ranges.
     Closing the lifts could cost resort owners $2.2 million US in lost revenues.
     "The city has been in a panic about closing the lifts," Sato said. "They didn't understand why things had to be different from Europe."
     With the Feb. 7-22 Olympics less than a month away, many of Nozawa's 5,000 townspeople still aren't convinced holding is such a good idea.
     "People feel there is nothing they can do now," said shop assistant Yoshiko Yamazaki.
     Biathlon combines rifle shooting and cross-country skiing.
     Immediately after Nagano won the games, deep concerns were expressed about how the shooting aspect of the biathlon would be handled under Japan's gun laws, among the world's strictest.
     Handgun possession is virtually unheard of. A law banning anyone under age 18 from using firearms in this country had to be revised in March 1996 to allow underage foreign biathletes to compete.
     Nagano organizers say biathletes can expect possibly the tightest supervision ever.
     All guns and ammunition will be inspected and transported to a special lock-up area at the Olympic village. The amount of ammunition each country will have will be specified, and every cartridge will be counted after firing.
     For identification, each athlete will have the iris of his or her eye scanned -- a high-tech version of fingerprinting.
     But while many foreign athletes may feel a bit pinched under Japan's laws, they can count themselves lucky compared with aspiring Japanese biathletes.
     Nagano officials rejected a request from the Japanese biathlon team to train in this town with live ammunition last summer. The team is training in Europe instead, and won't return until the beginning of February, according to Nozawa village official Take Maseru.
     "Some foreign athletes don't understand how strict Japanese laws can be," he said. "But this is why the Japanese team has to train in Europe sometimes."
     Gun laws haven't been the only problem, however.
     The Nagano biathlon was originally scheduled to be held in the village of Hakuba, which is also holding the downhill skiing and ski jumping. Organizers moved it to protect the nesting grounds of a rare species of hawk.
     "The wildlife and environment are protected while our jobs are hurt -- that's not good," said Yuko Miyasaka, a grandmother and lifetime Nozawa resident.