In 1966, when Utah made an unsuccessful bid before the International Olympic Committee in Rome for the 1972 Winter Olympics, it was Sapporo, Japan, that beat out Salt Lake City for the bid.

There's a strong chance that Japan could again spoil Utah's Olympics hopes. This time it would be Nagano, bidding against Salt Lake City in Birmingham, England, for the last Olympics of this century.In 1966, one of the reasons IOC members gave for selecting Sapporo was that the city had originally been awarded the 1940 Games, which were canceled because of World War II. In 1990, Japan may win for other reasons - location and money.

There's a consensus among competitors that Nagano, situated in the heart of the massive Japan Alps in central Japan, is the one to beat, and that position has only been strengthened since Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics.

After Atlanta was selected in September, Sol Yoshida, chairman of the Nagano Bidding Committee, said that his city had "a fair chance now" to compete with Salt Lake City for the Games.

There are a few other good omens for Nagano's bid. In 1998, Nagano will celebrate its centennial, and it is also the year that one of Japan's most famous Buddhist shrines, Zenkoji Temple, opens the Sacred Image of its Supreme Buddha to public display - something that happens only once every seven years.

Nagano is plagued by several weaknesses including narrow roads, distance from international airports and a small - but vocal - opposition.

While Brigham Young may have had visions of turning around ox teams in Salt Lake City's broad thoroughfares, Nagano's much more ancient city planners probably only had to worry about the turning radius of pedestrians.

Despite such weaknesses, no one doubts that Japan has the will - and the yen - to correct them. Niels Valentiner, a Salt Lake architect who toured Nagano sites, said he agrees that many of Nagano's shortcomings can be corrected through widening roads and by building a bullet train, planned from Tokyo.

During a visit in September, Valentiner and other members of the delegation from Salt Lake City were given a tour of possible Olympic venues, Zenkogi Temple and a downtown "Olympic Center" complete with bobsleds, models of a figure-skating rink and speed-skating oval. The mammoth oval is expected to cost over $100 million, more than twice the amount planned for Salt Lake City.

The curious Utahns also rode a bus that lumbered up a narrow road to Hakuba, one of Japan's premier ski resorts, where preparations are already being made for ski jumps.

At city hall, the delegation was greeted by applauding city workers and given green tea. Deputy Mayor Yamagishi told the delegation that Nagano has been dreaming about the Winter Olympics since 1936 when it first competed against Sapporo for the 1940 Games.

"We are good rivals," he said.

Valentiner, like others, was impressed by the Japanese hospitality and doesn't doubt that the Japanese could put on a good Olympics. But he believes Salt Lake City's advantages outweigh Nagano's.

Of course, that determination is up to the IOC, and Nagano is spending more than twice as much - $8 million - as Salt Lake City on its Olympic campaign for the 1998 Winter Games. Its honorary chairman is Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, who has been named the world's richest man by Forbes magazine for the past four years.

Nagano also has a Games budget of $1.1 billion for the Olympics compared with Salt Lake City's $749 million budget. Not included in those numbers is what it would cost to widen roads and build a bullet train. The bullet-train cost is estimated at near $1 billion. The train trip is expected to be shortened by several hours to a single hour from Tokyo.

Nagano is also helped by the fact that it is only two of six competitors for the 1998 Winter Games that won't have an Olympics in their nation or nearby during the next decade. The other is Sochi, USSR, which has yet to even build a ski lift next to the Black Sea resort.

Those facts could help Nagano with the IOC, which likes to rotate the Games among countries and continents. The last time Asia hosted the Games was in 1988 for the Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. The last time for Japan was Sapporo's Winter Games in 1972.

For that reason, there appears to be some favoritism in the IOC. Francisco Elizaide, an IOC member from the Philippines, who was in Salt Lake City last week, said it may be Japan's turn for the Olympics, especially in light of the Atlanta decision.