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US flagbearer is great ambassador for unsung sport of biathlon

Biathlon ranks as the mystery sport of the Winter Olympics. Everything else is clearly labeled - bobsledding, figure skating, and so forth - but then they stick in one of these ``thlons'' to confuse the issue. Decathlons and triathlons are familiar, but the biathlon still requires an introduction to North Americans, most of whom know little about this combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting.

If anyone is suited to spread the word, it is Lyle Nelson, a tremendous ambassador for the sport as well as his country.

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``I'm really looking forward to standing in the starting gate and that 30 minutes of all-out effort,'' said the 39-year-old father figure of the US biathlon squad in anticipation of today's 10-kilometer race. ``It's pretty significant when you know you're going to try something with more effort than you've ever given in your life.''

Nelson, a West Point graduate and four-time Olympian, was selected by the US team captains to be the American flagbearer in the opening ceremony here. While honored, he doesn't expect the fleeting attention to make a lasting impact.

``I don't think carrying the flag means that we will be like the NFL,'' he said.

In East Germany, the best biathletes are as revered as quarterback John Elway is in Denver. And former Soviet great Alexander Tikhonov was once on a postage stamp. But public adulation is obviously not what motivates Nelson or his teammates, who toil in obscurity. They are fascinated by the split personality of their sport, which requires balancing the physical exertion of skiing with the exacting mental demands of shooting.

The combination lends the sport a legitimacy some believe is lacking in the shooting events found on the summer Olympics program.

``For people who ... feel shooting is nonathletic, biathlon is the answer,'' says Abby Hoffman, director of Sports Canada. ``Biatholon combines intense physical activity with the target dimension of shooting.''

The athletes periodically must stop at a shooting range, load their rifles, and attempt to hit five targets. If they miss, penalty loops are skied or time is added to their result, depending on the event.

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``It's pretty easy to have a bad day,'' Nelson observes. ``You can miss three shots by a grand total of a half inch and go from the top 10 to 50th.''

This is basically what happened to American phenom Josh Thompson in the 20k race here. He missed three shots in his last group and finished 25th, a jarring disappointment in view of his silver medal in the same event at last year's world championships, the best-ever American finish in an international competition.

Gremlins of self-doubt can easily creep in on the firing line, but Nelson, who also will compete along with Thompson and two teammates in Friday's 4 x 7.5 kilometer relay, has learned to maintain a high degree of confidence.

``You just have to ski in there full tilt and say to yourself, `The targets are as big as pumpkins, and I'm going to blow 'em down.''

The use of rifles hints at biathlon's military roots. The first known race, in 1767, involved skiers guarding the Norwegian-Swedish border. The sport, known then as ``military patrol,'' was part of the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924. It was dropped after World War II because of antimilitary feelings, but reinstated in 1960 as biathlon, a word meaning ``two tests'' in Greek.

Many top biathletes, including those representing biathlon powers East Germany and the Soviet Union, are in the military or on police forces. To meet living expenses, Nelson and several of his teammates serve in the National Guard, which makes them almost pure amateurs. But while such factors would seemingly heigthen cold war athletic tensions, Nelson says relations couldn't be better.

``Maybe because of the military backgrounds of so many of the athletes, we make a special effort to display the true Olympic spirit, that goodwill among nations,'' he observes. ``The East Germans, Russians, and Americans are three of the most compatible groups you'll find in the Olympic Village, among all the sports.''

In his three previous Olympics, Nelson's best finish was a 19th in the 20K in '80, one he'd be happy to repeat this time.

Overall, the US team, led by Thompson and coached by Norwegian Sigvart Bjontegaard, has begun to make headway on the international front. Though Nelson is encouraged and pleased by the progress, he neither predicts nor necessarily wants the US to achieve parity with the world's leading biathlon power.

``It's pretty hard to beat athletes in a nation where that sport is a national sport,'' he says. ``I hope biathlon continues to be dominated by the Soviets. It's almost a cultural show of individuality.''

Nelson, who now lives outside Burlington, Vt., grew up in McCall, Idaho, a logging community that has been the little engine that could in the development of world-class skiers, turning out 10 winter Olympians. As a high school athlete, he was coached by Mac Miller, the best American Nordic skier until Bill Koch won an Olympic silver medal in 1976.

Since making that same '76 Olympic team while still serving his military hitch, Nelson has made biathloning a priority while pursuing educational opportunities as well. He earned a masters in business management from the University of Southern California in 1980 and is pursuing his doctorate in human development psychology via correspondence work at Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara.

These Olympics will mark the end of Nelson's long run as a participant. He wants to get more mileage from his hard-earned education and shift life styles.

``If I was in my fifth Olympics, I think I would say to myself that I'm in a rut, [even if it's] a great rut.,'' he said. `` ... I want to do the things I'm learning in school. I want to be better in relationships, and finances are starting to be a factor. I'm ready to go to work.''

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