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Most Utah eyes will be upon skaters and skiers in Nagano

Planning on following media coverage on figure skating at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan? If so, you join the estimated 76 percent of Utahns who will be watching the men's singles, women's singles, pairs or ice dancing competition in the coming weeks.

Or are you a fan of curling and can't wait to watch the TV highlights and read the scoring summaries of this relatively obscure sport that looks something like shuffleboard on ice? If so, you'll be among a local minority - an estimated 20 percent of Utahns who will follow curling during the Nagano Games.Figure skating and curling tallied the extreme percentages in a Dan Jones & Associates survey taken last month for the Deseret News. More than 600 adults were asked how likely they would be to follow 10 different sports disciplines and events at this month's Winter Games.

More than three-quarters of the respondents - 76 percent - said they would be either very likely or somewhat likely to watch figure-skat-ing matches, with skiing (63 percent), bobsled/

luge (62 percent) and opening/closing ceremonies (61 percent) rounding out the four most popular events.

By comparison, curling had only 20 percent of the respondents saying they would likely be watching as it makes its debut as an official Olympic sport in Nagano. Almost as many - 17 percent - didn't have an opinion either way if they would or wouldn't watch curling.

In recent years, figure skating has skyrocketed to the top of most-watched televised sporting events in the United States, with opponents and proponents debating its merits as athletic competition.

Skating received a tremendous boost in viewership following the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding affair just before the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Thugs hired by Harding attempted to knock Kerrigan out of the U.S. Olympic Trials by smashing her knee with a collapsible baton. Both skaters went on to the Olympics, with Kerrigan earning the silver medal in the women's singles.

The incident not only turned up the heat on a simmering rivalry but served as a catalyst to further solidify figure skating as a top TV attraction.

Skiing's prominence in the poll benefits from several local advantages. First, both alpine and freestyle fall into the "skiing" category, which could make for a slight increase in percentages. Also, skiing is both a key industry and recreation in Utah, and the U.S. Ski/

Snowboard Team is the only U.S. Olympic team headquartered in the Beehive State.

Alpine skiing in general - and the downhill in particular - is among the few premier Olympic events, with the medal-winning efforts of Picabo Street and Tommy Moe during the '94 Lillehammer Games among the recent U.S. highlights.

The United States has enjoyed only sparse success in bobsled and luge - no medals in bobsled for 46 years and none whatsoever in luge - so the poll results can't be based on history.

Rather, respondents may be mindful that U.S. Olympians have trained at the track at the Utah Winter Sports Park in Bear Hollow. Perhaps more likely, bobsled has enjoyed an increased following in the wake of the Disney movie "Cool Runnings," which was loosely based on the Jamaican bobsled team's unlikely participation during the 1988 Calgary Games.

The opening and closing ceremonies are always a major draw, thanks to the fanfare and pageantry. The opening ceremonies establish a theme, with the parade of athletes and lighting of the torch as much-awaited spectacles. Utahns will be more inclined to follow the closing ceremonies, since the state will be featured in a five-minute segment introducing Salt Lake City as the host site of the next Winter Olympics in 2002.

Two other sports drew a majority of interest in the Deseret News poll: speed skating (57 percent) and ski jumping (55 percent).

Steeped in the traditions and 11 gold medals of the now-retired trio of Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen, the current U.S. speed-skating team features a predominantly young roster with few recognizable names that look to use Nagano as a steppingstone for successes in Salt Lake City.

Ski jumping is another sport that has to attract local followers on merits other than American medals, since the sole U.S. medal was a bronze earned in the first Olympics nearly 75 years ago.

Surprisingly, hockey was listed by fewer than half the poll respondents as an Olympic sport they would likely follow, despite a pair of firsts related to this sport in Nagano.

National Hockey League players are part of Olympic rosters for the first time ever, with teams like the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic and Sweden all boasting their own "Dream Teams" on ice. The United States and Canada are considered the favorites to contend for the gold, with the American stars having defeated their Canadian counterparts most recently in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship series.

And women's hockey makes its debut as an official Olympic sport, with the North American countries of Canada and the United States again the favorites. The United States claimed an overtime victory against Canada in West Valley City's E Center in October, when the American team kicked off its pre-Olympic competition.

Snowboarding, another first-time Olympic sport, had a proposed following of 40 percent of the poll participants, while biathlon and cross-country skiing was next-to-last at 31 percent.

The poll was conducted Jan. 8-10 among 603 Utahns and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Deseret News poll

How likely are you to follow the following events during the 1998 Winter Games?

Sport Very Somewhat Not very Not at all Don't

... likely likely likely likely know

Ski jumping 20% 35% 22% 24% 0%

Biathlon/cross-country skiing 8% 23% 33% 37% 0%

Skiing 23% 40% 15% 22% 0%

Snowboarding 16% 24% 22% 37% 1%

Figure skating 53% 23% 9% 15% 0%

Ice hockey 19% 27% 20% 34% 1%

Speed skating 26% 31% 17% 26% 0%

Bobsled/luge 28% 34% 14% 24% 0%

Opening/closing ceremonies 32% 29% 14% 25% 0%

Curling 5% 15% 21% 42% 17%

This poll of 603 Utah residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Jan. 8-10, 1998. It has a margin of error of +/-4 percent.