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European powers pack usual Nordic wallop as Olympics near

As the Nordic ski sports - cross-country, jumping, and combined - head into their final spell of World Cup action before the Olympics, there have been few surprises. Marja-Liisa (Haemaelaeinen) Kirvesniemi of Finland, triple gold medalist at Sarajevo in 1984, ended a two-year retirement and returned to the cross-country wars, winning a race in Yugoslavia. And Raisa Smetanina, the Soviet who has said after each of the last four seasons that she was retiring, also came back for at least one more campaign.

Otherwise, though, there weren't many surprises or changes in past patterns. The Swedish men, the Norwegian women, and the Soviets of both sexes remain the top X-C racers; Finland's Matti Nykaenen, who won gold and silver medals at Sarajevo, has demonstrated that he is still the finest jumper in the sport, winning seven meets and finishing second in the only other one he entered during the first month of the season; and Torbjoern Loekken of Norway remains by far the best Nordic combined skier.

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Last weekend, in a two-day combined meet held in this millionaires' playpen, Loekken was 18th in jumping, but his skiing brought him victory as he blew by everyone in the 15-kilometer cross-country race. On the hilly, power-oriented Olympic course at Calgary, he should be able to make up for any jumping problems with his running superiority.

The US skiers in Nordic combined and cross-country will go into the Olympics next month ``blind'' since they didn't compete in a single World Cup event and have no idea where they stand in relation to others in their sport. The jumpers, on the other hand, didn't miss a meet in North America, Japan, or Europe, and know what adjustments, if possible, must be made to make them more competitive.

``The cross-country and combined teams are taking what I think is a big gamble,'' said US head jumping coach Greg Windsperger. ``You want to have some idea of where you stand in comparison with the Europeans and Soviets as you get ready for something as major as the Olympics ... but they have nothing to gauge themselves by. I hope it works.''

In truth, the US cross-country squads figure to be far back in the pack in any event, so maybe staying home and training in the snowy US - and not getting worn down jumping back and forth over the Atlantic to snowless Europe - will pay dividends. A top-25 result would be like a gold medal for the Yank runners.

The US Nordic combined squad has another problem: the admission by two-time Olympian Kerry Lynch that he used the forbidden ``blood-doping'' process last winter before winning the silver medal at the world championships.

Combined is a two-day mix of jumping and X-C racing. ``Blood doping'' is an attempt to increase endurance by removing blood, freezing it, and then reinjecting it on the eve of an event. Although undetectable, the process is against the rules, and since Lynch's admission, several European nations have called for banning him from competing at Calgary.

The International Ski Federation is expected to vote on the issue within the week.

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Head coach Doug Peterson, who organized the doping with a non-US Ski Team doctor, submitted his resignation when it came to light. Ski Team officials were considering whether to accept it.

While US athletes prep for next week's Olympic tryouts in Biwabik, Minn. (for cross-country), and Lake Placid, N.Y. (jumping and Nordic combined), here's a thumbnail look at each Nordic sport:

Cross-Country - Three-time World Cup champion Gunde Svan of Sweden, who won a medal in every event at the 1984 Olympics, was derailed last season by illness. Now he says regaining the World Cup crown from teammate Torgny Mogren is his No. 1 goal. Svan leads the points list after four races and seems well along the road to reclaiming the throne room ... as well as a couple more Olympic medals.

Mogren and Thomas Wassberg, the ageless Swede who is considered the top ``big race'' skier, are two other surefire medal contenders. Other possibles include Paal-Gunnar Mikkelsplass of Norway and Vladimir Smirnov of the USSR in Classic (diagonal stride) races and Canada's Pierre Harvey and Norway's Vegard Ulvang in freestyle (skating). The Swedes are runaway favorites in the relay.

Among the women, the return of Kirvesniemi shuffles the deck. She wanted to retire after 1982 but kept on and won the '83 and '84 World Cup titles, took all three individual gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, and added two silver medals at the '85 world championships before retiring to motherhood. Now, two years after her daughter was born, she's back and still a contender.

Marjo Matikainen, the Finn who has won the last two World Cup crowns, is another top threat, as are Norway's Marianne Dahlmo, Sweden's Marie-Helene Westin, and Anfissa Retzova of the Soviet Union. The Soviets and Norway should duke it out for the relay gold.

Jumping - Nykaenen was so far ahead of everyone in the first month that officials lowered the start so he wouldn't outjump each hill. He won several meets by an astounding margin of 20-plus points. Pavel Ploc of Czechoslovakia, the 90-meter bronze medalist at Sarajevo, has been the only man to outjump Nykaenen this winter and also won two other meets the Finn didn't enter. He must be considered Nykaenen's top competition. East Germany's Jens Weissflug, who beat out the ``Thin Finn'' for the 70-meter gold in 1984 is another contender, while defending World Cup champion Vegard Opaas of Norway, though he has been struggling lately, can't be overlooked.

Nordic Combined - With Loekken in form, it's a race for the silver medal. The Soviets skipped the first round of races, so no one knows where they are but Allar Levandi, the English-speaking kid who likes Bon Jovi music, is expected to be a strong challenger along with Austrian Klaus Sulzenbacher, Trond-Arne Bredesen of Norway, and West Germans Hermann Weinbuch and Thomas Mueller.

The Olympic X-C events will take place at Canmore, a town about 60 miles west of Calgary, while the jumping will be held on the western edge of the city at a site plagued by side winds and tail winds which can push down a skier shortly after takeoff.

But all things being equal, if the first month of the season is any indication, familiar names and faces will be picking up most of the medals.

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