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    Friday, February 6, 1998

    Dutch look for medal sweep in speedskating

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- The Dutch expect to begin a speedskating medal haul Sunday in the men's 5,000 meters, the first Olympic race at the M-Wave arena.
     Some predicted a 1-2-3 sweep by the Netherlands, which has a powerful team led by world-record holder Gianni Romme and European all-around champion Rintje Ritsma. Bob de Jong also is a solid medal contender, along with Norwegian Kjell Storelid and Keiji Shirahata of Japan, who'll have the home-ice advantage in the 10,000-seat arena.
     Johann Olav Koss of Norway, the 1994 champion who is now commentating for an Australian television network, picked Romme to win the first speedskating gold medal of the Nagano Games.
     "Gianni Romme is definitely the favorite in the 5,000 and the 10,000 (which will be run on Feb. 17)," Koss said. "Then there's Rintje Ritsma, of course. He'll be there at all the distances."
     Romme accepted the role of gold-medal favorite.
     "If you skate very fast and break the world record, then you make yourself the favorite," he said.
     The Americans are rebuilding after the retirements of Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen and have never been strong in the longer distances, anyway. Former in-line skater KC Boutiette leads the U.S. team but his best event is the 1,500.
     Storelid finished second to countryman Koss in Lillehammer four years ago, with Ritsma taking the bronze. The Dutch are hoping to redeem themselves for a poor showing in 1994, when they failed to win a gold medal in their national sport.
     "We can be nothing but extremely pleased with our preparations," said coachHenk Gemser, who took his team to the village of Okaya for its pre-Olympic preparation.
     The Dutch, who won a silver and three bronze medals in Lillehammer, trained on an outdoor oval and immersed themselves in the Japanese culture before traveling to Nagano.
     "You prepare in perfect tranquility," Ritsma said.
     As Koss proved four years again in Norway, when he won three gold medals in three world-record times, the crowd can be used to the home country's advantage. Shirahata is the top Japanese skater at the longer distances, setting a world all-around record last month at the M-Wave.
     "I know from my own experience that having the Olympics at home gives you extra motivation," Koss said. "You really want to do well."