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Oddsmakers and sports columnists alike are picking Salt Lake City to host the 1998 Winter Olympics.

However, given the political nature of the International Olympic Committee, that doesn't mean a lot."The bottom line is: You won't know for certain until Saturday at noon," said Lenny Delgenio, director of race and sports book operations at Bally's of Las Vegas.

But that doesn't stop the speculation.

Danny Sheridan, sports analyst for USA Today, gives Salt Lake City the best odds of any city for winning the international bid, at 2-1.

"It means nothing at all. Based on the information (Sheridan) has been able to get, the probability is twice as great you'll get the Olympics as you will not get the Olympics," Delgenio said.

Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Hersh says Salt Lake City ought to win the Games, although it is not a shoo-in.

Hersh places Salt Lake City first, Ostersund, Sweden, second and Nagano, Japan, third. But Hersh admits Salt Lake's chances were hurt by the IOC awarding the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to Atlanta. The IOC may be reluctant to award the winter games to another U.S. city in such a short time period.

And Barry Frank, Olympic TV negotiating mogul, puts Salt Lake City's chances of winning at even money. "If Atlanta had not gotten 1996, Salt Lake would be a shoo-in," Frank said.

Al Dunning, sports editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, views the contest as a horse race between Salt Lake City and Nagano.

Nagano's chances are hurt by its inadequate infrastructure - hotels and transportation systems are considered deficient.

On the other hand, Salt Lake is caught in a groundswell of anti-American sentiment. Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics and the 1996 Summer Games are coming to Atlanta, Dunning writes. In other words, the United States is hogging its share of the limelight.

Las Vegas casinos have not set odds on Salt Lake City's chances of winning the Olympic bid. "We only put up stuff people can bet on. Under the state of Nevada code, we're only allowed to set odds on sports things. You can't bet on things people can vote on," Delgenio said.

"If we did, we'd be more truthful than Danny (Sheridan)," Delgenio joked. But he stopped short of totally disregarding Sheridan's prediction.

After all, Sheridan gave Atlanta similar odds before it was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. "That does give him a degree of credibility. It's equated to people's best guess information and that's what he's relying on," he said.

Rick Nerland, former executive vice president of the Anchorage Bid Committee, has heard it all before.

Anchorage lost the IOC bid for the winter games twice - the 1992 games eventually awarded to Albertville, France and the 1994 games, which will be hosted by Lillehammer, Norway.

"Speculation runs rampant. Believe very little of what you hear now until Saturday," he said.