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    Wednesday, February 18, 1998

    Freestylers face struggle of Olympic proportions

     IIZUNA KOGEN, Japan (CP) -- It would be too easy to say the Canadian Air Force was grounded at the Nagano Winter Olympics.
     But Canada's national freestyle team never took off at these Games -- and this is one Air Force that no government subsidy could save.
     The turbulence started with Jean-Luc Brassard's colossal failure in the moguls. In a matter of a few days the mogul of moguls turned himself into a target for his letdown performance on the hill and his poor choice of words off it.
     Brassard, the 1994 Olympic champion and reigning world champion, blamed his duties as flag-bearer (not once but twice) for his inability to daffy and 360 his way down a bumpy hill to the best of his abilities. He finished fourth.
     The night he was announced as the flag bearer at a reception before the opening ceremonies, Brassard stepped onto the Canada House stage, waved the Canadian flag half-heartedly, and -- this is the bad omen part -- let the flag touch the ground several times.
     Traditionalists were not pleased -- many editorialists argued Elvis Stojko would have been a better choice as flag bearer, and Brassard reluctantly accepted what is usually an honor.
     Brassard made some progress after the event -- his diatribe on comparing a loss at the Olympics to starvation and war put things into perspective, and maybe some flag-wavers a lesson.
     On Wednesday, the aerials portion of the Canadian Air Force was supposed to restore this country's faith in ski acrobatics, but world champion Nicolas Fontaine finished 10th. Without a flag to blame Fontaine directed his ire to the judges.
     Fontaine, one of the favorites, had a good first jump. At least he thought so, but the judges begged to differ.
     "I thought I had a pretty good first jump, but I have to admit I was disappointed with the judges' marks," Fontaine said, a native of Magog, Que. "It hurt my concentration for the second jump and maybe I worried about it too much.
     "The athletes are disappointed, so am I, and the coaches are a little depressed."
     The Canadian aerialists came into the Nagano Games with six world championship and World Cup medals (including two gold) to their credit. A year ago on the same hill in this ski resort northeast of Nagano City, they won five world championships medals.
     This time they leave with only a question mark.
     Jeff Bean of Ottawa was 11th, and Andy Capicik of Toronto was 12th and last.
     "That's the Olympics," Bean said. "It's for the one-day wonders."
     Eric Bergoust of the U.S. won the gold with a world-record score of 255.64 points for the two-jump final. Sebastien Foucras of France took silver and Dmitri Dashchinsky of Bulgaria was third.
     The winners may turn out to be one day wonders, but they picked the right day out of 365 to be the best. Olympic champion means cereal box covers, shampoo, and either milk or cheese. World Cup champion means a line up at the supermarket to buy Bergoust Bratwurst.
     In the women's event, Veronica Brenner of Sharon, Ont., ended up ninth after qualifying third for the medal round.
     American Nikki Stone won the gold, Nannan Xu of China was second and Colette Brand of Switzerland took the bronze.
     Brenner, who was World Cup champion in 1996-97, blew the landing of her low-scoring first jump. With Stone and the other medallists hitting high-scoring triple twists and somersaults, Brenner found herself almost 30 points behind the leaders going into the final jump.
     For the men, Fontaine started with a back full somersault, followed by a double full front flip -- which, for those who don't watch the freestyle on television, means that he turns himself into Mary Lou Retton on skis. He tried for another difficult leap the second time down, but missed the landing.
     "That's a jump I've had a hard time with all season," Fontaine said, who chose a difficult leap to gather more points. "I didn't know what to do to get points."