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`Danger' in Nagano? Ride was a wild one

You know it's going to be a wild ride when one of the only English words your Japanese cab driver knows is "danger." Especially when he says it as he's running red lights at high speed.

Taxis aren't easy to find in Nagano, and when you do, they've usually already been reserved by one of the dozens of corporate sponsors helping to pay for the 1998 Winter Games.Calling for a cab doesn't work very well, either. The telephone lines are usually busy and if you do get through, you're told it's going to take a half hour or longer for the cab to arrive.

So how do you get anywhere in a hurry? What worked on a recent evening at a suburban Olympic venue was just jumping into a cab that was waiting for someone else, likely a corporate sponsor.

The driver, who spoke almost no English, listened patiently as a reporter tried to explain she needed to get back to the Main Press Center right away and pointed at her watch.

Suddenly, he seemed to decide this was indeed an urgent mission, and sped away. The cab bounced along some of Nagano's narrowest roads and roared through several red lights.

What made the ride even more exciting was the driver turning around repeatedly and gleefully saying the word "danger" to his passenger while tapping the clock on the dashboard to show what good time he was making.

He did make the cross-town trip in record time, but tipping is not considered polite in Japan. The driver did accept an Olympic pin and even shook the reporter's hand when she thanked him.

DRUG TEST: Japan has only one IOC-accredited drug-testing lab for the Nagano Olympics, and even that lab - Mitsubishi Kagaku Bio-Clinical Laboratories - failed an IOC accreditation test last sum-mer.

The failure resulted from the lab not having one of the illegal drugs for which Olympics tests are done. Japan's strict laws also hinder drug testing, making it difficult to obtain advance illegal-drug samples for comparison purposes.

The lab boasts equipment that is considered four to five times more effective in detecting banned drugs than that used in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Despite the high-tech advantages, Nagano Olympic officials are concerned about the staff's limited experience in drug tests and the performance of inexperienced escorts accompanying athletes to the testing areas.

The random drug tests in Japan - which include rare checks of police and other staff - generally are less prevalent than in the United States. That's because drug abuse is not a widespread social problem among the Japanese.

FEELING SECURE: Hundreds of additional police officers have been out en force well before the official start of the Nagano Olympics, tightening security and keeping a high profile throughout the area.

The cautious approach comes for several reasons - because members of Japan's imperial family and other VIPs were scheduled to attend the opening ceremonies, and because the nearby city of Matsumoto was the site of a 1994 nerve gas attack that claimed the lives of seven people.

The attack was blamed on the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, which also was involved in a similar nerve-gas attack that killed 12 in Tokyo's subways the following year. Most of the Aum Shinri Kyo's leaders are either in jail or in custody awaiting trail.

Tension was heightened recently when three homemade rockets were fired at Tokyo's Narita International Airport, the arrival point of many foreign athletes, media, officials and spectators. The rockets were considered to be the work of left-wing extremists critical not so much of the Olympics in Nagano but current expansion at Narita.

Getting much less attention just days before the Games was a bomb scare in which local police and bomb squads were called in to investigate a suspicious package. The surrounding area was cleared before the package's contents were X-rayed.

The emergency was called off when officials determined the package - apparently sent to one of the many Nagano staff volunteers - contained gloves and a toilet-seat warmer.

YOUNG GUNS: Another challenge of Japan's weapons restrictions makes it illegal for anyone younger than 18 to possess a firearm. The nation has had to soften its stance somewhat recently as some international biathlon teams with teenage members have come to Japan, not only for the current Olympics but also pre-Olympic competitions in the Nagano area during the past year or two.