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Where cross country reigns, it's an honor to wax Dahlie's skis

Can you picture Yaz coming back to spring training every year just to oil Mo's glove?

That's about what happens when the Norwegian cross-country ski team gets ready for a major race.Honored veterans in their fifties and sixties who want to stay around the game vie for the honor of helping wax the skis of the young warriors. And the most distinguished set of skis in the land belong to 30-year-old five-time Olympic gold-medal winner Bjorn Dah-lie.

The national idol of Norway was going for a record-breaking sixth career men's gold this morning in the 30K classical race at the Snow Harp here in Hakuba. He did not get it. Citing faulty wax (uh-oh, guess they brought the wrong old-timers), the great man said he knew he wasn't going to win anything once he reached the 8-or 9-kilometer mark. He finished 20th, more than 61/2 minutes behind gold medalist Mike Myllylae (go ahead, pronounce that one) of Finland. The race was conducted in snow from start to finish, and Mr. Myllylae is a noted bad-weather stalwart, having won a World's Champion race last year in pouring rain. (File this. There will be a quiz on Thursday.)

Back home, where people watched the race in the wee small hours, you can be assured that the sun will rise - well, in due time - and life will go on, with Bjorn Dahlie's reputation undiminished. Getting the record was really no big deal in Norway.

"We are not as statistics-obsessed as you people," pointed out Norwegian Hans Peter Reiss, a plain old fan from Oslo, who was with a group of a dozen or so flag-waving cross-country fans here to lend support to the powerhouse Norwegian contingent.

Oh, they all know how many golds Dahlie has, all right. He didn't get to be the toast of Norway by continually finishing 70th. Or, for that matter, 20th. The Norwegians like the fact that their cross-country skiers are so dominant, and that Dahlie is The Man. But three golds, four golds, five golds, 10 golds . . . the actual number doesn't make any difference. Americans are all about records. Norwegians are all about, well, that sometimes is the question, according to Tor Karsen, a journalist from Dagsavisen, a Norwegian publication.

"I think your philosophy is that everything has to be bigger and bigger and bigger in your country," he says. "Where's the end? What's the limit? That's the kind of question we are discussing in Norway. I think we might have a broader view. Dahlie himself says he isn't that worried about any record. He says he only thinks of it when we journalists bring it up."

Dahlie has established himself by this time. Winning a sixth or seventh gold won't make him any richer, any more famous, or any more respected.

Not everyone is so dismissive of the record possibility, however. Our friend Mr. Reiss is looking forward to Dahlie separating himself from the pack. "If it happens, it will be very important," he maintains. "He is the king of cross-country." Tor Flaatton, a cameraman from Norway's TV2 and a clear cross-country aficionado, seconds that particular motion. "It would be a big happening," he agrees. "He's our biggest athlete ever."

How big? Dahlie arrived in Nagano by private jet. He puts out a clothing line and endorses ski equipment. He has a regular television show. Norway tries to keep hero worship in context, but there is no question he is the most famous person in the country.

He is not a big man. I'd peg him at 5 feet 11 inches or so, and he is slender. But if you were to rip him open you would find a pair of Havlicekian lungs, acording to the Norwegians.

"What makes him great is not sheer strength," says Flaatton. "He has the great capacity to conserve oxygen."

Dahlie was able to rationalize Monday's disappointment away easily because it wasn't even an event designed to showcase his skills in the first place. His best events lie ahead. "He is untouchable in the 15K," says Bauer.

So that means Saturday could be the big day, the one in which he pockets the gold medal that will break the tie currently existing with Finnish speedskater A. Clas Thunberg and American hero Eric Heiden. Before he's done, he may even break the Olympic record of six, held by Russian speedskater Lydia Skoblikova and Russian cross-country skier Lyubov Yegorova. But if he doesn't?

"Life goes on," he says, like any good Norwegian should.