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It's a war out there as nations squabble over booties, blades

Let's see if we've got this straight: Nations are lining up to protest that one country has equipment or materials the others don't have or that one won't let another inspect its goods.

It's a war out there - and we're talking more than the United States and Iraq. It's all about the 1998 Winter Olympics and getting a competitive advantage - the edge against an opponent.Politicians and military strategists debate weapons inspections, unlimited access and biological bombs. Olympic athletes, officials and the media worry about skate blades, bobsleds and booties.

Sounds silly? Perhaps, but it could mean the difference in earning the world's most precious medal.

Here's just a few of the examples at the current 1998 Nagano Games:

- Germany's Georg Hackl captured an unprecedented third straight men's luge singles gold medal Monday wearing what one observer called "new yellow booties." The U.S. and Canadian teams lodged an official protest - later denied - in hopes of giving the footwear the boot.

"They're a very aerodynamic shape, and that's the advantage," said Hackl, adding that they could cut two or three hundredths of a second on each run.

The Americans and Canadians said they tried to buy the new streamlined footwear but were told by the manufacturer that they were unavailable before the Olympics because of a shortage of materials.

- Wind-reducing stripes of foam, worn on a uniform for the first time by the record-breaking speed skaters from the Netherlands, received full endorsement Monday by the International Skating Union.

The decision erased protests from Japan and Norway following the men's 5,000-meter event in which the Dutch dynamic duo of Gianni Romme and Rintje Ritsma set back-to-back world records. The stripes are in accordance with the rule that no attachment can change the shape of the skater's body.

- An even bigger issue than foam stripes in speed skating has been the recent influx of the clap skate - or the "klap schaatsen," as the Dutch call them.

With a hinge on the front of the boot and springs at the back, the blade on the clap skate temporarily unhinges and remains on the ice for a few moments longer during the push stroke.

European skaters have revised their skating techniques to take advantage of the clap skate, breaking seven of the 10 world records in the three months going into the 1998 Winter Olympics. And in the first two events of the Nagano Games, skaters have broken world or Olympic records four times already.

Meanwhile, the Americans took their time catching on; now they're trying to catch up. They had hoped that the international federation would ban the clap skate for Olympic competition, but it delayed any decision until its summer meetings.

U.S. skaters have struggled in getting clap skates, let alone learning how to train and perform with them. Viking, a Dutch manufacturer of the most common clap-skate devices, refused to sell to the Americans for a time. When they finally did, they would send the equipment unassembled and without directions or ship pairs of poor-quality skates.

U.S. Olympic Committee board member Jim Easton - president of Easton Aluminum, which makes baseball and softball bats and other sporting goods - has mandated his company to develop and manufacture its own clap-skate models.

- The United States is countering with what American bobsledders perceive to be their own equipment advantage - sleds designed as a result of efforts by race car driver Geoff Bodine.

After crashing while taking a practice run at Lake Placid, N.Y., several years ago, Bodine took charge of rebuilding the damaged sled. He not only rebuilt it, he improved it - using his NASCAR experts and some $100,000 of his own money to design and develop his own Bo-Dyn line of sleds, which have the Americans gushing.

"The Europeans are now coming to us to buy our sleds," said America's top bobsled driver, Brian Shimer, while in Salt Lake City last year.

Shimer noted that U.S. squads have had to purchase from European manufacturers in the past, "and they're not going to sell you anything that you can use to beat them. . . . The equipment is not going to be the issue any more."

One of several reasons why U.S. bobsledders are enthralled with the Utah Winter Sports Park track at Bear Hollow is that it allows them to train in the United States and not in Europe, where the Bo-Dyn design would be more readily visible to the competition.



Speed skating revolution

The clap skate, developed in the Netherlands, is a technological revolution in a sport in which equipment has been virtually unchanged for centuries.

The skate has a normal blade hinged at the toe. This allows the full runner to stay in contact with the ice, providing greater push and a faster time.

As the blade comes back in contact with the heel of the boot, it makes a ratcheting "clap, clap, clap."

Source: United States International Speedskating Association