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    Tuesday, February 17, 1998

    Harada's golden redemption

     HAKUBA, Japan (AP) -- The shame of Lillehammer -- it had almost become Masahiko Harada's nickname.
     Failing to hit even a mediocre ski jump at the 1994 Olympics, a failure that cost his team the gold, was a moment that had defined Harada's life for the past four years.
     Now he was atop an Olympic ski jump again -- this one at Japan's first Winter Games in 26 years, in front of 50,000 noisy, expectant countrymen.
     On his first leap, under awful conditions, he had taken his team from first to fourth place. As he set up for his second and final attempt, he looked down the windy slope through a light snow and knew what lay ahead was either redemption, or another moment of ruin.
     "To be honest, I felt like it was Lillehammer all over again," he said. "I just decided to do the best I could, to just fly as far as I could."
     History did not repeat itself.
     To the resounding "banzai!" cheers of the elated Japanese fans, Harada was all gold, soaring 137 meters to tie the Olympic record set by teammate Takanobu Okabe just minutes before and virtually assuring Japan of the victory. It also was Japan's 100th Olympic gold medal.
     Final jumper Kazuyoshi Funaki, winner of the individual gold on the large hill, jumped 125 meters to make it official.
     "We did it! We did it!" Harada cried, embracing his teammates and breaking down into tears.
     It was a cry heard round Japan.
     Evening editions of all major newspapers had Harada headlined, front page. Of course, most people knew of the gold because the papers had already issued "extra" editions.
     Japan's state-run NHK television ran the jump live; the other networks flashed the news seconds after it happened, then broadcast special programs in prime time.
     Even top politicians were offering congratulations.
     "I'm sure much of the country was glued to the TV watching," said Kanezo Muraoka, a member of Cabinet and the chief government spokesman. "The Japanese people are grateful to them for winning."
     Harada's Olympic moment was of such importance to Japan because so much of the country saw their ski jumping squad's loss in Norway as a blow to national honor.
     Japan has done far better than expected in Nagano. Tuesday's gold was its fourth, for a total of eight medals -- more than any other Winter Games.
     Still, no event was as nervously awaited as the team jump.
     "We all remember what happened in Lillehammer so clearly," said Toshitsugu Yamada, a young office worker who came from Japan's northern island of Hokkaido to see Harada jump.
     "Today, they have erased that shame," he said.
     On that day, with Japan in the lead and Harada last to jump, he only needed a modest 105 meters. Collapsing under the pressure, he landed at 97.5, and Germany edged Japan for the gold.
     Although the 29-year-old has repeatedly proven himself to be one of the best jumpers in the world -- he won the 1997 normal hill World Championship, for example -- nothing seemed to clear his name since Lillehammer.
     As the official profile put out by the Nagano organizing committee notes:
     "His smile has caught the heart of many domestic Japanese sports fans. Unfortunately, he is still widely known for his jump that cost Japan a gold ..."
     Upon his return to Japan shortly before the games, Harada was pummeled with questions about his confidence -- the Japanese media's nice way of saying, "Are you going to screw up again?"
     It got to him.
     "It was really tough," he told a packed news conference Tuesday, his voice trembling. "I feared I would be a problem for everyone again."
     Harada looked like he was going to win the normal hill competition here last week, but bombed out on the second jump. On Sunday, he had to settle for bronze in the individual large hill event.
     And then there was that first jump Tuesday.
     "I had a lot of difficulty in the first jump with the heavy snow, visibility and the slow speed," he said. "It kept snowing so hard I couldn't see in front of me."
     With big, wet snowflakes covering the ice in the tracks down the slope, Harada had the slowest descent of any of the 52 competitors in the first round -- 52.2 mph.
     Funaki, who is in his first Olympics, said replacing Harada as the team's final jumper has given him a new understanding of what pressure is all about.
     "I felt enormous pressure on my entire body, really," he said. "I was overwhelmed. But the result was the gold. It's great."
     Yushiro Yagi, head of the Japanese delegation to the games, had promised before the team event began that Japan would win.
     "We will win," he said. "We must win."
     Standing at the bottom of the jump with Harada and his gold medal-winning team, Yagi was overcome with pride.
     "This is the best," he said. "There is nothing better than this gold."