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    Saturday, September 13, 1997

    Nordic combined champ hopes for Olympic gold at home

     TOKYO (AP) -- Kenji Ogiwara, a three-time Nordic combined World Cup champion, has a slight advantage going into the Winter Olympics in Nagano: He gets to compete at home.
     It could be an important edge for Ogiwara, who has failed to win the last two World Cup titles.
     In Nagano, Ogiwara will be familiar with the jumping venue and the cross-country skiing course, the two parts that make up the Nordic combined competition.
     "It's so rare to be able to compete in the Olympics right at home. It'd be a waste if I didn't take full advantage of it," Ogiwara said.
     Nagano Olympic officials are counting on a strong performance from the popular hometown boy -- by far Japan's biggest star in winter sports -- to ensure the success of the Feb. 7-22 games.
     There's no doubt he'll be the local favorite, even though at times he has been controversial.
     At the 1992 Albertville Olympics, Ogiwara and his teammates' unabashed elation at winning the Nordic combined team gold clashed with Japan's ideal of self-deprecating reserve.
     Ogiwara also gained fame by helping to change a fundamental strategy in his sport.
     He and other Japanese athletes were among the first in the world to perfect a new jump with the skis pointing outward in a "V," rather than together side by side. That allows the jumper to glide through the air farther.
     With that jump, the Japanese broke into a sport that had long been dominated by the Scandinavians.
     Now, at 27, Ogiwara faces a host of rivals who have mastered that technique.
     Recently, he has been finding it increasingly difficult to win event after event, a feat that is essential for the World Cup.
     After clinching three consecutive World Cup titles (1993-1995), Ogiwara placed second in 1996, defeated by his longtime rival, Norwegian Knut Tore Apeland.
     Many blamed that loss on a thumb injury. But Ogiwara's performance fell short in most of this year's World Cup events as well. He finished sixth overall, and the title went to Finland's Samppa Lajunen, then only 17.
     "Up to now, youth kept me going. Subconsciously, I'm starting to concentrate on certain events that I really want to win, while holding myself back in others," said Ogiwara, a slight, wiry man with a quick smile.
     Last winter, Japanese media reported that Lajunen had called Nordic combined athletes older than 20 over the hill. But he dismissed that as "a misunderstanding."
     "It doesn't matter what is your age, if you're jumping and skiing well," Lajunen said later.
     Ogiwara said the reported remark never bothered him. But he was grateful for the boost in confidence he got from his win at the 1997 world championships in Norway in February.
     "I realized I could still do it," Ogiwara said. "And there'll be another chance for me to be No. 1 again."
     An individual Olympic medal would be a first for Ogiwara, although he has two team golds from Albertville and Lillehammer.
     In addition to his younger rivals, Ogiwara faces a different kind of challenge from the International Ski Federation.
     The federation, based in Oberhofen, Switzerland, has made some rule changes that have proved devastating for the Japanese, who tend to be strong jumpers.
     In Nordic combined, the athletes have always ski-jumped first, and their performance determined their starting position in the 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) cross-country race that followed.
     For years, the athletes used their best two of three jumps in the competition. Beginning in 1993, only two jumps were allowed. And in 1994, the rules were changed again so that good jumps offered less of a head start in the cross-country competition.
     "We'd been working hard under the same rules, and finally we were able to win. Then they change the rules on us because we were winning too much," Ogiwara said. "That's unfair."
     Bengt Erek Bengtsson of the International Ski Federation admits the changes hurt the Japanese jump-based strategy the most. But he said they were meant to balance the two parts of the competition.
     Ogiwara and his teammates, including his twin brother, Tsugiharu, have worked hard to overcome the changes and their demoralizing psychological impact, said Takahiro Uesugi of the Ski Association of Japan.
     "Kenji Ogiwara has a solid knack for bringing out the best in himself. He's extremely sharp," Uesugi said. "He never flinches at anything."
     At the Albertville Games, Ogiwara irked some people back home with his spontaneous delight at the finish line, which included waving the Japanese flag.
     The flag still evokes fear and shame among many because of its links with World War II militarism. Japanese tradition also demands understatement, even in victory.
     Ogiwara says he isn't a nationalist, he just isn't shy about wanting to win. "Being No. 1 is the best," he said.
     In his training, he has made a point of keeping things simple.
     "Every athlete wants to get better, but you can end up doing too much," he said, carefully weighing his words. "Rather than starting something new, I want to get back to my original form."