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    Sunday, February 22, 1998

    Norway basks in a golden games

     OSLO, Norway (AP) -- Norway is stunned, delighted and more than a little amazed after these Olympics.
     "Norwegian winter sports came to Nagano with fewer ambitions and less money," the Oslo newspaper Verdens Gang said Sunday. "It is leaving with new heroes and bigger dreams."
     This winter sports-crazy country of 4.5 million had expected a major letdown in Nagano. Norway's 1994 Lillehammer Games were a sparkling success and a sports triumph, with 26 Norwegian medals, 10 of them gold, for second behind Russia.
     There was no way to match that, halfway across the world in Japan. Or so Norwegians thought.
     But when Bjorn Dahlie won the men's 50K cross-country ski race on the last day of competition Sunday, Norway ended up with 25 medals, 10 of them gold and just one silver shy of the national record set in 1994. Only Germany had won more.
     "I think it surprised everyone that we managed to maintain this fine level of sporting success," Arne Myrvold, president of the Norwegian Sports Federation, said in Nagano.
     Dahlie won three gold and one silver to become the most successful winter Olympian in history. In the course of three Olympics, Dahlie has won eight gold and four silver medals.
     Before the grueling 50K race, Dahlie hadn't even expected a shot at a medal.
     "I discovered a new side of myself in this race, and I have never surprised myself like this. This was almost unthinkable before the start," said Dahlie, who was so exhausted after the race he had to be helped up by team managers.
     And there were new heroes, like Hans-Petter Buraas, who captured the gold medal in the slalom for his first international victory. He won by 1.33 seconds, the biggest Olympic margin in 38 years.
     As recently as the 1988 Calgary Games, Norway won no gold medals -- the first time that had happened at a Winter Olympics. The country's industry got behind a program to build the team, with heavy sponsorship leading to Lillehammer.
     But then sponsorship dwindled and the Norwegian ski federation was near bankruptcy in 1995.
     Now Norway confidently points to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, where young stars such as Buraas and Nordic skier Thomas Alsgaard, a double gold medalist, are likely to return.
     Still, Norway looks back to the Lillehammer Games, a national obsession.
     Those games were so good, with dazzling venues, perfect weather and friendly colorful crowds, that IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch deemed them "the best Winter Olympics" ever.
     So Norwegians eagerly awaited Samaranch's verdict on the Nagano Games, which had been plagued with bad weather.
     "Congratulations, Nagano and Japan," Samaranch said at the closing ceremony. "You have presented to the world the best organization in the history of the Olympic Winter Games."
     That remark provided great reassurance in Norway. The luster of Lillehammer remains.