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Japan mines 1st gold

As far as the Japanese are concerned, the opening ceremonies for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics weren't Saturday but Tuesday evening at the M-Wave speed skating center.

That's when Japan's Hiroyasu Shimizu captured the host country's first gold medal by breaking his own Olympic record in the men's 500-meter event.Shimizu smashed the mark he had set the day before, with his 35.59-second time just 0.2 off his world record of 35.39 that he set in World Cup competition last year in Calgary, Canada.

Judging from the roar of the predominantly home crowd and the amount of flag waving and photo-taking when Shimizu clinched the gold on the day's final race, the energy and emotion far exceeded the reverent, reserved and respectful atmosphere at Saturday's opening ceremonies.

"My long dream has come true," said Shimizu. "But I had no idea whether this was really happening or not.

"I want to report this to my late father," he added, "but I cannot find any words at the moment."

All activity in the M-Wave seemed to stop when Shimizu started his final heat with all staff and volunteers rushing from their locations throughout the arena to watch and cheer. After winning with a combined two-day time of 71.35 seconds, Shimizu played to the capacity crowd during several victory laps, carrying the national flag and waving to the throngs of admirers.

Canadians Jeremy Wotherspoon (71.84) and Kevin Overland (71.86) rounded out the medalists, with another pair of teammates - Sylvain Bouchard and Patrick Bouchard - finishing fourth and fifth. The United States' Casey FitzRandolph, who surprised everyone with a third-place finish after Monday's heat, claimed sixth with a total time of 72.20.

After the medal ceremony and the playing of the Japanese national anthem, Shimizu invited the much-taller tandem of Wotherspoon and Overland to join him on the gold-medalist's spot on the podium.

Shimizu went into the games as the world record holder in the 500 and led the competition after the first race Monday.

"About a week ago, I started to feel an uneasiness," he said after the race. "I started to worry: `What if I do not achieve what everyone expects?' "

As he stood at the start, Shimizu had no less than the crown prince cheering him on. And minutes after his victory, he was on the phone with the prime minister.

"I wasn't all that interested in the games until today," said Sayori Koyama, a young office worker. "But this is really moving."

Tomo Miyaguchi, who was also at the square, said he thought Shimizu's performance was "tremendous."