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    Tuesday, February 17, 1998

    Gianni: Speedskating's new boss

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- The pounding beat from the Holland House reverberated across the snowy streets of Nagano, the celebration so raucous that beer glasses slid off table tops as the Dutch danced into the night.
     And that was before Gianni Romme arrived.
     A few hours earlier and a couple of blocks away at the M-Wave, Romme shattered another world record for his second gold medal, a crowning moment for a country enjoying its greatest speedskating success in Olympic history.
     He won the 10,000 meters Tuesday in 13 minutes, 15.13 seconds, a whopping 15 seconds faster than Johann Olav Koss's world-record time in 1994.
     Teammates Bob de Jong and Rintje Ritsma finished second and third, giving the Netherlands a sweep and pushing its speedskating medals to 10, the most it has ever won at the Olympics.
     When the race was over, Romme was so exhaustd that he could do little more than raise his arms.
     By the time he hit the Holland House, he found new energy.
     "Wooooooooooo!" he bellowed with his lips pressed into the microphone, doing a jig that would have made Steve Martin proud as he sprayed champagne everywhere.
     For Romme, these Olympics have been a time for celebration. Last week as the speedskating competition began, he set a world record in winning the 5,000.
     "I think I skated two excellent races here," he said Tuesday. "I think that's what I know about my skating -- I skated the best I could, and I was the fastest."
     As for Koss the Boss?
     Working for an Australian television station, the Norwegian predicted beforehand that Romme would break his record, maybe by as many as 30 seconds.
     "I think you can put me in a museum or something," he said.
     Of course, Koss skated before clap skates came along. With a hinged blade that stays on the ice a fraction of a second longer, records have been falling at a rapid-clap rate.
     But Romme made a lot more noise than the clickety-clack of the skates.
     He beat Ritsma in the 5,000 meters by six seconds, or about 80 meters. In the 10,000, he finished about 130 meters ahead of de Jong.
     "My technique is the most important part in skating," he said. "Every year, it's better."
     But even his second gold medal couldn't capture the mostly Japanese crowd at the M-Wave the way Koss captured the hometown crowd in Lillehammer, where the Norwegians stood elbow-to-elbow in the cozy Viking Ship as their hero set his third world record.
     The Dutch fans occupied only a few sections at M-Wave as Romme, de Jong and Ritsma provided the first sweep in a men's race since Norway in 1964.
     At the Holland House, it was another matter.
     Crammed under a tent, the centerpiece of a temporary bar, they stood on tables, clad in orange, and sang a Dutch tune called "Hela, Hela, Holala," as they waited for the three medalists to emerge from a private lounge.
     The Netherlands' latest speedskating star appears to have the world at his feet -- Casanova good looks, tousled brown hair framing sleepy eyes, a careless laugh at the endof everything he says.
     On the ice, he is altogether different.
     "I think he has found that killer feeling," Dutch coach Henk Gemser said after Romme won the 5,000.
     Koss was hailed for skating each of his final 24 laps under 33 seconds. Romme didn't go over 32 seconds until the 18th lap, and he was never slower than 32.58 seconds except for the first one.
     "I do not fly," he said when asked if he was Superman. "I skate. And I think I did that well today."
     De Jong knew the best he could do was silver. He finished in 13:25.76, which would have easily ecliped Koss' record but on this day was 10 seconds too slow.
     "I knew after the 5,000 by Gianni, nobody could get him," de Jong said. "The rest of the skaters were going for the silver. To me, the silver was a gold."
     That's how the bronze felt to Ritsma, the best all-around skater in the world but never a gold medalist. He leaves Nagano with three medals, giving him five for the last two winter games, and a new appreciation for his countryman.
     "Gianni," he said, "is just in a class all of his own."