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    Friday, February 13, 1998

    M-Wave the star of Nagano

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- The most striking venue of the Olympic Games arises from ordinary surroundings -- a gas station next door, a Kentucky Fried Chicken down the street.
     M-Wave, a $270 million palace, mirrors the Japanese Alps towering in the distance. And it's huge. The Japanese set out to build a speedskating rink and wound up with a building that could double as an airplane hangar.
     "We walked in and it was so much bigger than what I had in mind," American speedskater Cory Carpenter said. "I was thinking, 'Well, this is Japan. It'll be packed like downtown Tokyo."'
     Hardly. M-Wave is full of glass and stone and larch (a locally grown tree). The suspended roof unfolds higher and higher, much like a deck of cards spread on a Las Vegas blackjack table, towering to 141 feet at its apex.
     At each end of the 10,000-seat arena, one can see the curvature of the roof rising and falling and rising again, resembling the letter that provides its name.
     "It took me awhile to figure out why they called it M-Wave," Carpenter said. "Then I walked around and saw the side. That was pretty neat."
     The "M" also could stand for "money" -- ater all, construction costs were more than three times as much as any other venue. Whatever the case, the name itself gives the building a distinctive flavor.
     Monstrous walls of glass soar at each end. The walls towering above each straightaway are Gothic-like concrete, as if built to hold off an invading army. All this is topped with a wooden roof that manages to lend a bit of a mountain-lodge hominess.
     "The M-Wave is one of the most beautiful facilities I've seen," said Frank Joklik, president of the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee for the 2002 Games. "I don't think we'll be able to match it."
     On the other hand, the staggering height makes it hard for the Japanese, who tend to be more reserved than their counterparts in other countries, to duplicate the speedskating atmosphere that prevailed at the Lillehammer Games four years ago.
     The Viking Ship -- where Johann Olav Koss, Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair provided one memorable moment after another -- was an intimate building that encouraged the screaming, flag-waving Norwegians to become as much a part of the event as the skaters.
     But that's quibbling. M-Wave is creating its own special memories, such as Hiroyasu Shimizu's gold medal in the 500 while a nation held its breath.
     It's also become one of the most rock 'n' rolling venues in Nagano. A Dutch band named "Small Beer" entertains the standing-room-only crowds, who liven up the stark surroundings with an array of colors: the red rising sun of Japan, the orange of Holland, the stars and stripes of America. At M-Wave, it's even sort of fun to do the Wave.
     "If you come to Nagano, you have to come look at the M-Wave," said Koss, attending these Olympics as a commentator for Australian television.
     The Calgary Games of 1988 were the first to hold speedskating indoors. Four years later, Albertville provided the last gasp for outdoor stadiums, a mushy, cramped track totally lacking in charm or atmosphere.
     Now, it's impossible for any city to consider playing host to the Winter Games without building an indoor oval, which creates faster times because the ice is more consistent and outside elements such as snow and wind don't interfere.
     Halfway through the 10-race competition at M-Wave, all five previous Olympic records have fallen, and two events saw each of the medalists break the previous world record. That had never happened before.
     "The ice is sooooo clean," American skater Kirstin Holum said, pointing to the use of electric Zambonis for resurfacing. "Usually around the edge of a track, it gets kind of dirty. But not here."
     There's no room for dirt in the M-Wave -- but room for just about everything else.