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`2 YEARS AWAY’ IS SOUNDING NEAR

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Grinning owl mascots called Snowlets are already being hawked. The rink where the world's top skaters will vie for the gold looms over rice paddies. And organizers are hoping for a hit tune in the "Nagano Winter Sports Folk Song."

Opening day for the Winter Olympics is two years from Wednesday - Feb. 7, 1998 - but as far as Japanese planners are concerned, there's hardly a minute to spare."The way we see it, we have only two more years left," said Toshio Ozawa, a spokesman for the Olympic organizing committee in Nagano, a city and farming region about 125 miles northwest of Tokyo.

Nagano already has plenty of winning wintertime attributes: the snow-covered Japan Alps, scenic resorts and quaint hot springs.

Construction of sprawling Olympic facilities is running roughly on schedule. And Japanese organizers are already getting down to detail work, marketing Olympic mascots and the Games' theme songs, including an "ondo" or folk song modeled after the classic recorded during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Still, there's a long list of unfinished business in connection with the 16-day event, being held in Asia for the first time in 26 years.

For one, the scheduling of events needs to be set by November. Organizers had to make room for snowboarding, which was added as an Olympic sport in December.

Planners are trying to anticipate concerns that might look minor now but will loom large as the Games draw near. For example, the men's ice hockey finals on Feb. 22 was moved up one hour, to 2 p.m. Japan time (midnight EST), reportedly to help it draw a greater U.S. and Canadian viewership in live telecasts.

Preparations are not only confined to Nagano; some huge projects are associated with the Games. A new "bullet train" line, to be completed in 1997, will shorten the three-hour ride from Tokyo to 90 minutes.

The Nagano Games will incorporate some Japanese traditions. In accordance with custom here, Olympians will be asked to take off their shoes before entering the athletes' quarters, which will later be converted into housing for local residents.

Despite the famous Japanese attentiveness to detail, organizers are already worrying over slip-ups.

"We want to make this super-big international event a success," said Sadao Shibamoto, an official with the Nagano committee.

At the top of the list of headaches is money. With Japan only now recovering from a prolonged economic slowdown, corporate sponsorship has fallen short of goals.

Only six companies have signed on, each pledging to contribute $19 million; organizers had hoped for at least 10.

The event is already over budget. Officials acknowledge costs will exceed their initial estimate of $723 million.

Adding to organizers' worries is the gyrating Japanese yen, which whipsawed from a high of 79 to the dollar last year before easing to about 105 now. The dollar was in the mid-130-yen range in 1991, when Nagano was chosen as a site.

A weaker dollar means reduced revenues for Japan, including its 60 percent cut of the $375 million CBS is paying for exclusive U.S. TV rights.

Organizers also stirred controversy by promising to pay for airfare and accommodations for the 3,000 athletes and officials expected to attend - then reneging on that 1991 offer.

More difficulties are expected in accommodating crowds at popular events. Planners want facilities to be big enough for the Games - but not so monstrously large as to be unusable later in Nagano, a city of 350,000 people.

The city has said it does not want to be stuck with the costs of maintaining huge facilities.

The Olympic stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held, will have to use 20,000 temporary seats to hold an anticipated crowd of 50,000. The "White Ring" dome, to be completed next month, has just 5,300 seats, despite being the venue for always-popular figure skating.

The ice hockey stadium, called "Big Hat," was originally slated to have 5,000 seats. But critics said that was far too few, and plans were changed to accommodate 10,000 people, including standing room for 2,000.