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    Thursday, February 19, 1998

    Finland soars and Japan groans

     HAKUBA, Japan (AP) -- In glorious sunshine they came by the tens of thousands, only to see the home team's hopes of a third straight Nordic combined team gold medal fade away.
     Japan's team produced only one ski jump over 90 meters today, and the two-time defending Olympic campions trailed in fifth place heading into the cross-country skiing portion of the two-day competition.
     That silenced about 40,000 fans who had come to see the Nagano twins, Kenji and Tsugiharu Ogiwara, and their teammates, Satoshi Mori and Gen Tomii.
     "We will be in a difficult position tomorrow," said Tsugiharu Ogiwara. He said his only hope was to ski "faster than the competitor ahead of me. If I can, I won't get a bad result."
     Finland took a small lead over Austria, Norway and the Czech Republic. While Japan wasn't far behind, it will need a heroic effort in the 20K cross-country relay Friday to win a medal.
     The first five teams were separated by 21 seconds, a small difference, but Japan's doesn't have four strong cross-country racers and faces tough competition from the powerful Europeans.
     "Before today we were hoping for a medal. Now we're looking for the gold," said Finland's Samppa Lajunen, the winner of the World Cup last season.
     "The Norwegians got some fortunate wind but this luck could be washed away by tomorrow's expected rain," said Lajunen, who led the Finns with a jump of 94.5 meters. Three of the Finns' eight jumps were over 90 meters.
     The weather forecast calls for rain Friday on the Snow Harp course. The Norwegians are considered faster racers but the Finns think that they can preserve their lead in tough conditions.
     Finland will have a four-second lead over Austria, eight seconds over Norway and nine seconds over the Czechs.
     The Austrians and the Czechs are stronger jumpers than racers, and the gold medal is expected to be decided between the Finns and the Norwegians.
     The Norwegians, silver medalists at home in Lillehammer four years ago, are led by Bjarte Engen Vik, the individual gold medalist.
     Vik had the most consistent jumps, soaring 94.5 and 95.5 meters for the highest individual points average of 255 points.
     "It's fantastic to jump in front of these crowds for us in the Nordic combined. it's a moment I will never forget," Vik said.
     The longest jump of the day belonged to Austria's Mario Stecher, with a hill-record 96.5 meters.
     Japan's top jumper was Mori, with 90.5 meters.
     Japan's star, Kenji Ogiwara, the reigning world champion who anchored the team to the past two Olympic golds, had leaps of 89 and 86 meters.
     "I was waiting for a good headwind, wanted to make a big jump, hoping to go about 95 meters but I got too worked up." Ogiwara said about his second leap.
     "I didn't have a good telemark and it was not a good jump."
     Gen Tomii, who jumped 87.5 and 85 meters, was optimistic the Japanese would make the podium.
     "The Japanese team did not make any grave mistakes so we're still in with a chance of a medal," he said.