Nagano, Japan, Chosen as '98 Winter Site : Olympics: Salt Lake City, which has sought the Games since 1966, finishes second in IOC voting.

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To some, the vote reflected courage. Others considered it cowardice.

Either way, there is no denying the International Olympic Committee's decision to award the 1998 Winter Games to Nagano, Japan, avoided a firestorm of criticism and debate.

The decision, taken at the close of the IOC's 97th session in a ceremony at the International Convention Center, will bring the Olympic Games to Japan for the third time and make good on the IOC's promise to open up Asia. Tokyo was the site of the 1964 Summer Games and Sapporo staged the Winter Olympics in 1972, but 16 of the 17 Winter Olympics to date have been split between Europe and North America.

Nagano led on all four ballots, and defeated Salt Lake City, Utah, by 46-42 on the final round. But with four Olympiads in North America since 1976 and Atlanta already preparing to stage the 1996 Summer Games, the IOC clearly feared risking an anti-American backlash by returning to the United States so soon.

"There were 100 factors that went into that decision," said Tom Welch, president of the Salt Lake City bid. "I'm sure Atlanta was a factor."

Even the Japanese acknowledged as much.

"We can interpret the votes to say rather than Nagano winning, Salt Lake City lost," said Ichiro Ogimura, a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee's executive board. "The Olympics should be held in other continents, and maybe that was a reason."

Ostersund, Sweden, finished third, followed by Jaca, Spain, and Aosta, Italy.

Beginning in 1994, the Winter Games will be held in the two years between the Summer Games rather than in the same year.

Salt Lake City, which has bid unsuccessfully for the games since 1966, has already won the U.S. Olympic Committee's endorsement to bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics. But tired and angry after a quarter century of disappointment--not to mention a 1998 bid that cost $4.6 million--some Utah officials couldn't see beyond Saturday's result.

"There are a lot of Asians in the IOC," U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch said. "You know they voted for Nagano."

But USOC President Robert Helmick preferred to take the high road, believing that more than anti-American bias was at work. He lauded Salt Lake City's organizers for the courage to see their bid through, especially in the aftermath of Atlanta.

"If one more IOC member had gotten to Salt Lake City, it might have made a difference," he said. "Yes, Atlanta, along with many other factors, was a factor. But nine months ago, people were telling Salt Lake City to drop out. Instead, they played it perfectly and were right there at the end."

The IOC members offered no clues when they filed into the room after voting Saturday night. Anita DeFrantz of the United States seemed to shrug slightly with a palms-up gesture, while Helmick unbuttoned his coat, then buttoned it back again. Judge Keba Mbaye of Senegal, who tabulated the final vote, was stone-faced.

But Salt Lake City's wait was brief. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch approached the podium, opened the envelope, and blurted out the name of the winner, setting off mad celebrations both here and in Japan.

"We received a great deal of support in the hall and I am extremely happy Nagano won," said Goro Yoshimura, governor of the Nagano Prefecture. "Many IOC members are looking forward to the birth of our facilities. They factored that into their choice."

Still, some kind of bias was at work. On Friday, Welch lodged a protest with Samaranch after he discovered that a Samaranch aide, Arthur Takach, was lobbying IOC voters on behalf of the president in favor of Nagano. Although Samaranch reprimanded Takach--and Takach sent a letter of apology to the Salt Lake City bid committee--Welch was clearly shaken.

After Saturday's vote, Welch simply said: "Obviously, I'm disappointed. But we did everything we could. I think the IOC made a value judgment that, just like they do every time, was based on what they saw. I guess they wanted to take the Games to Japan. We have to live with that."

Ironically, Salt Lake City almost failed to survive the first round of voting. Due to a wave of pro-Jaca sentiment among the IOC's Latin American members, Salt Lake City wound up tied with Aosta for last on the ballot with 15 votes apiece. Only a run-off (Salt Lake City won easily, 59-29) dropped Aosta from the field and restored order.

But Salt Lake City never got any closer than three votes to Nagano. Although most of its facilities remain unbuilt and a price tag of $563 million hangs over the 1998 Games, Nagano put together a bid that emphasized a commitment to the future of winter sports in Asia.

The Nagano bidding committee trotted out former world figure skating champion Midori Ito, who addressed the IOC in a full kimono. Her earnest, halting English and winning smile clearly did some good. "Perhaps," she said, "if I did make a contribution, I am very happy."

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