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    Sunday, February 8, 1998

    Records fall and fall and fall

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Bart Veldkamp streaked across the finish line, thrusting his arms through the frigid air to salute the singing, swaying crowd. He had just skated the best race of his life, a world record by more than two seconds, yet he knew it wasn't good enough.
     "I thought Gianni Romme would go faster," Veldkamp said.
     Actually, it was another Dutch skater, Rintje Ritsma, who eclipsed Veldkamp's world record in the men's 5,000-meter race before Romme ever stepped on the ice Sunday.
     By the time Romme crouched into his starting position, ready to cap off a remarkable first day of Olympic speedskating at M-Wave, everyone prepared for him to reclaim the world record that was his at the beginning of the day.
     "After watching Gianni for two or three laps, I knew I was second," Ritsma said. "So it was easy to watch."
     M-Wave, its massive roof towering 141 feet above the ice, doesn't provide the intimacy of Lillehammer's Viking Ship, where Johann Olav Koss eclipsed the 10,000 record by nearly 13 seconds four years ago.
     But the sheer enormity of Romme's achievement managed to draw the reserved Japanese fans out of their shell, following the lead of a small band of orange-clad Dutch fans who sang, banged drums, waved flags and tooted on trumpets and tubas.
     With each lap, 12 1/2 in all, the crowd was informed that Romme was increasing his world record pace. The din inside M-Wave grew louder and louder, reverberating off the towering concrete walls and the wooden ceiling and finding its way back to the ice. For a moment, it did seem like Viking Ship all over again.
     The Dutchman's powerful legs pumped harder and harder. They needed less than a half-minute to circle the 400-meter oval early in the race -- a remarkable achievement even for a fresh skater -- and Romme was still turning those times at the end. He coasted across the finish line fully upright, searched out the scoreboard and saw the stunning number:
     "He's able to go fast in the beginning and not go dead," Veldkamp marveled. "That's his big advantage on the rest of us."
     This is what the sport has come to in this era of clap skates and indoor ovals and revolutionary race suits (we'll get to that in a moment). Records used to fall in fractions of a second, but Romme was more than six seconds faster than either Veldkamp (6:28.31) or Ritsma (6:28.24), eclipsing the record Romme brought into the day by nearly 8 1/2 seconds.
     "It was quite impressive to me also," said Romme, a carefree, soon-to-be 25-year-old man-child with a wild mop of brown hair. "That's a great feeling to be able to go fast and go easy. When I got to the finish line, I knew I had done a great thing."
     Not so fast. Remember, these are strange times in speedskating, with world records falling in droves due to the revolutionary clap skate and the pristine conditions of indoor arenas like M-Wave.
     Now, the Dutch team and former compatriot Veldkamp, who moved to Belgium after the 1994 Games, have to answer for the latest invention -- tiny strips of fabric which zigzag the racing suit from knee to ankle and the top of the hood, cutting down air resistance.
     The Dutch had been studying the concept for years but kept it from the rest of the speedskating world until three days before the Olympics, when the International Skating Union was asked to grant its approval and did.
     "The Dutch and the Belgian skater ran good races," said Norway coach Svein Haawand Sletton, whose country protested the striped suits along with Japan. "They would have won without them. But some Dutch skaters told us it takes about five seconds off in the 5,000 meters."
     ISU referee Folkert Brouwer said there were no grounds for a protest because the new suit follows the contour of the body. Dutch coach Henk Gemser said his skaters probably benefited by a fraction of a second each lap, but he estimated that Romme would have skated just over 6:23 even without the stripes.
     "I think Gianni Romme has grown up," Gemser said. "I think he found that killing feeling. He wanted a gold medal in the Olympics. I don't think we should make this victory about striping."