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    Sunday, February 1, 1998

    Norway's ace Daehli is back in Nordic

     The cross-country Olympic trail at Hakuba already has a winner -- the goshawk. When nests of the protected birds were found along the trail, organizers redesigned the Snow Harp course.
     At least the cross-country skiers get to stay. The goshawk chased away the athletes with guns, forcing the biathlon to move to a different village, Nozawa Onsen.
     Those who will get to compete at Snow Harp include some past Nordic champions and some newcomers. Kenya, better known for its cross-country runners, is sending cross-country skiers, the first time the country will be represented at the Winter Olympics.
     One of the sport's biggest stars won't be joining them. Lyubov Egorova, the hero of Albertville and Lillehammer with six golds medals, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and has been banned.
     While doping is a concern, wax may be the substance that helps determine who wins the Nordic events at the Nagano Games. Swings in daytime temperatures and high humidity in Hakuba will make waxing even more important than usual in cross-country skiing.
     But no matter what the conditions are, one skier should stand above the others -- Norway's ace Bjorn Daehlie.
     The 30-year-old has 14 gold medals in Olympic and World Championship competitions and is the career leader with 40 World Cup victories. He has four overall World Cup titles, including the last two seasons.
     The Norwegian ace could face some tough competition from fellow countryman Thomas Alsgaard, the 30K champion from Lillehammer.
     Daehli, who has five gold medals over two Olympics, has been concentrating on peaking for the games, at the expense of the World Cup. He came down with the flu in mid-January and went home rather than race in Ramsau, Austria.
     While the other Norwegians continued competing, Daehli went to Italy for altitude training.
     "I cannot gamble with my Olympic form," Daehli said. "My main ambition is to do well in Nagano. It is very important to get enough time in high altitude."
     The Italians are probably the second strongest team, with such stars as Silvio Fauner, Fulvio Valbusa and up-and-comer Pietri Piller Cottrer, a 23-year-old who is considered a possible medal contender in the toughest race, the 50K.
     The Italian men and women won nine cross-country medals in Lillehammer. Their women's team is strong again.
     "We are probably the second strongest after the Russians," said women's coach Camillo Onesti.
     Stefania Belmondo, who won four silver medals at last year's worlds, clinched her first World Cup victory of the season in mid-January, signaling a return to form for the Olympics.
     Manuela di Centa, who will be 35 when the Olympics begin, has been troubled by injury and illness and is unlikely to repeat her feat from the 1994 Games, when she won two golds, two silvers and a bronze. But she could be an important link in the Italian relay at her fifth Winter Olympics.
     Russia's Yelena Vaelbe is another woman who should star at the games. She has 39 World Cup victories and is the five-time defending World Cup champion, but she has never won an individual Olympic gold medal.
     She missed the 1988 Games because she had a baby, and in 1992 she got a relay gold. She came to Lillehammer as an overwhelming favorite, yet she skied badly and ended up with only another relay gold.
     At last year's worlds in Trondheim, Norway, Vaelbe made cross-country history by sweeping all five gold medals. One of them came after Egorova tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and was disqualified.
     Doping also will be a concern at the Nagano Games, especially in the Nordic events, which require incredible stamina.
     Athletes have been known to take EPO, a drug that enhances the production of red blood cells, and use "blood doping," when blood is removed and then restored to the body just before competition to increase the flow of oxygen to the muscles. But just like in Lillehammer, athletes will be given pre-race blood tests in Nagano.
     In training for the Olympics, some athletes used so-called altitude rooms, which recreate the rarefied atmosphere of the mountains.
     Altitude training is natural for Philip Kimeli Boit and Henry Kimeli Bitok, who hail from the slopes of Kenya.
     "We are confident they would do our country proud just like the track and field athletes have done," said F.K. Paul, assistant secretary general of the Kenyan Olympic committee.
     Both skiers, who have been training in Finland, are -- of course -- former runners.
     And the Americans?
     The only realistic hope they have of a medal is Todd Lodwick, in the Nordic combined, an event that combines ski jumping with a cross-country race. He is a world junior champion and has a couple of World Cup victories this season.
     As for the biathlon, it's one of three sports the United States has never medaled in -- the other two are luge and Nordic combined -- and it is unlikely to change at Nagano.
     The event, which combined shooting with cross-country skiing, is a test of steady nerves and endurance. Coming up a grueling climb on the skies and then having to shoot at five targets while out of breath makes biathlon one of the toughest -- and most unpredictable sports.
     As always, the Germans, the Russians and the Norwegians have the strongest teams, although France could provide a few dark horses.