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    Sunday, February 8, 1998

    Now, Olympic 500 is twice as good

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Terry McDermott was an obscure barber from Michigan who stunned the speed-skating world by winning a gold medal at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics.
     Karin Enke was an alternate on the East German team when she pulled off an upset at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980.
     These surprise winners are part of the Olympic lore in the 500 metres, but surprises may be going the way of the traditional skate and the outdoor oval.
     This year, looking to reduce the capriciousness of the shortest Olympic race -- the kind that may have cost American Dan Jansen one gold medal and maybe two -- there will be two races over two days, the winner determined by the best combined time.
     The favorites are pleased by the change, while the unknowns long for the uncertainty of the past.
     "It's the fairest way to do it," said Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer, Alta., one of the favorites in the men's 500 that began today and will be completed Tuesday. "There will be no doubt who the best guy is after the two days."
     American Marc Pelchat, hardly a medal contender, spoke on behalf of the underdogs.
     "When you're someone who's a little on the outside looking in for a medal, it's nice to get one shot to pop a big race, catch people by surprise and get a medal," he said.
     "That's what you think about with the Olympics, that person you never expect coming on to win the gold. With two races, it makes it a little more difficult for that person to jump out of nowhere."
     Under the old format, one little slip, one slight miscalculation often spelled disaster in the half-minute or so it takes to make one lap and change around the oval. Just ask Jansen, one of the great sprinters in speed skating history but never an Olympic medallist in the 500.
     The new format calls for skaters to start in alternate lanes from one day to the next. The chance to finish on the outside lane is viewed as especially important for larger skaters, who often have trouble negotiating the inner lane at top speed on their final turn.
     "I think there is definitely an advantage to one lane over the other," Wotherspoon said.
     Chris Witty, the top U.S. female sprinter, believes the new system might be to her advantage because she's more consistent than many of her counterparts. Still, she doesn't seem sold on the idea.
     "This is a totally different event," she said.
     "You could have your personal best the first day and be real happy with that, but it's not over yet. You have to do it all again the next day. It's kind of hard to do."