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    Wednesday, February 18, 1998

    Dahlie had forgettable start in Nagano

     HAKUBA, Japan (AP) -- These memorable Olympics started all wrong for Bjorn Dahlie.
     Seeking a sixth Olympic gold medal, Dahlie instead picked the wrong wax for his skis and wound up 20th in his first Nagano Games event, the 30-kilometer classical race last week.
     Life improved when he came back to capture the 10K, and with it that sixth gold. But then, just as he looked ready to win his record seventh gold medal, he was caught by teammate Thomas Alsgaard right before the finish of the 15K pursuit.
     On Wednesday, the time finally came -- with a little help from Alsgaard and Dahlie's other friends on Norway's 40K relay team.
     In the event's closest finish ever, Alsgaard followed up Dhlie's strong third leg and crossed the finish line two-tenths of a second ahead of Italy's Silvio Fauner for the victory.
     That moved Dahlie past two other athletes in Winter Olympics gold medals with seven. And his total of 11, including four silvers, also set a winter record.
     But really, he said, it's no big deal.
     "Winning today was just as much fun as it was 10 years ago, and I haven't focused at all being the one who has won the most medals. That's something journalists think about," Dahlie said.
     It's hard to imagine such a big star could come from such a small country -- and from a sport that is virtually ignored outside of Norway except during Olympic years.
     Perhaps it's because Dahlie lacks a big ego. He is the most successful Winter Olympian of all time, but has never outgrown his sport, or the country he proudly represents. No one who knows him thinks he ever will.
     In Norway, Dahlie is big business, with his own sportswear line and TV program, flying to competitions in a private jet.
     But, typically Scandinavian, he leaves others to talk about his accomplishments. It simply wouldn't be the Norwegian way, or the Dahlie way, if he didn't.
     He says he wasn't even thinking about the medals record.
     "I will appreciate it in a few years when I look back on a fantastic career," he said Wednesday. "But I was not concentrating on it here."
     Dahlie became No. 1 in a country filled with cross country skiers after his teammate and rival, Vegard Ulvang, retired following the 1994 Games.
     Like Dahlie, Ulvang was a triple gold medalist at Albertville and is Dahlie's co-star on the TV show, which is broadcast in Scandinavia and focuses on outdoor pursuits.
     Dahlie, whose two other gold medals came at Lillehammer in 1994, could add one more Sunday in the 50-kilometer individual race -- the most punishing event in cross-country skiing.
     In Wednesday's race, Alsgaard's push in the relay's final 5-kilometer leg was particularly fitting. It was Fauner who edged Dahlie four years ago in a memorable dash to the finish before a wildly cheering crowd that remains one of the memorable moments of the Lillehammer Games.
     This time, in almost a carbon copy finish, Alsgaard beat Fauner.
     "I was worried, I was thinking about the relay in Lillehammer and I knew how fast Silvio is," Dahlie said. "But this was a big revenge. For me, it's better to win by 20 centimeters than half a minute."
     Just like always, Dahlie was thinking little, yet did something very big. Call that the Dahlie way.