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There's Nagano place like home

Japan, baby. I'm heading for Japan. The land of Godzilla, karaoke and fat guys who are treated like gods. In other words, I'm going home. I'm supposed to be covering the Winter Olympics in Nagano, but I'm really on a mission to fulfill my destiny, to find a proper place for my ample space, where my girth may have some worth. Japan, where the bigger you are, the bigger you are. I'm a big guy. Not Samoan Sumo-big but big enough to fill out one of those thongs. Now that's a frightening thought here, but in Japan, fat guys in thongs are worshiped. They have money and women, and it seems all they have to do is push each other around a little. Japan, my kind of town. While my goal may be to take my rightful place among the gravity-challenged, my assignment is to cover the granddaddy of them all, the Winter Olympics - that is, if they have snow. You need snow to have the Winter Olympics or else you have skiers running down the hills and tripping over their skis - an event that may already be included in the "X" Games. They haven't had enough snow this winter in Nagano, which, of course, is being blamed on the cursed El Nino, the force of nature responsible for all things unexplainable these days. El Nino is probably showing up in a few of those White House depositions. (Given Hollywood's infatuation with natural disaster films - "Volcano," "Twister" - there is likely an "El Nino" movie in the works, starring Willard Scott and Al Roker as superhero weathermen who save the world). Snow is being trucked into Nagano to avoid turning this into the 1998 Summer Games. This happens when you decide to hold the Winter Olympics in the southernmost site ever to serve as host. Aruba may be under consideration for the 2006 Games. At least it's not as bad as Innsbruck in 1964, when the Austrian Army carved out 20,000 ice bricks from the mountains and took them to the bobsled and luge runs. That's really sending out for ice. As long as the Zamboni machines are working, though, the Winter Games are fine. Figure skating still rules, and everything else is just program filler. But there are two new developments in these games that are worthy of note. One is the participation of the NHL players for the first time. The NHL is hoping that the Olympic exposure will bring in more fans, but none of the games are being shown back here in prime time. The games will be broadcast live from around midnight to 3 a.m. Eastern Time. That's not even program filler. That's infomercial time - Anthony Robbins vs. Eric Lindros. The other significant development is that curling has proved that old adage that if you hang around the door long enough, sooner or later you'll find a way in. Curling - a combination of sweeping and bowling - was a demonstration sport four times during the Winter Games since 1924 until someone on the Olympic committee realized that these curlers weren't going to go away and agreed to make it a medal competition for the Nagano Games. Now, members of the IOC could probably explain the difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 NFL defense before they could describe exactly what the sport of curling is. One curler takes a 42-pound granite stone and slides it down the ice toward a target. Then his three teammates use brooms to sweep the frost and moisture in front of the stone away to make it go farther or sweep it in its path to slow it down. They do this with about 16 stones, trying to get the closest to the target area, known as the "house." This is known as rocking the house. Of course, it figures that this sport is huge in Canada, where there are believed to be 1.2 million curlers, which is more people than come to watch the Montreal Expos play. One of the biggest names in curling in Canada is three-time women's world champion Sandra "the Curler" Schmirler, who I believe made an appearance on Laverne and Shirley from time to time. In the United States, there are about five curlers, and four of them are in the Olympics. The other one couldn't get time off from work. Somebody had to keep the streets clean back home. You can't underestimate the significance of this Olympic breakthrough for curling. It paves the way for other unheralded sports such as vacuuming and raking. Now curlers can take their place proudly alongside the other Olympic athletes at the opening ceremonies in Nagano. Please note that sumo wrestlers will lead in the delegations of each nation in those ceremonies, and Akebono, a sumo grand champion, will perform the ancient rite of purification. I may just hit him with a chair. Then we're talking pay-per-view, baby.

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