Snow covers vegetation at downhill course in Hakuba

An inspection team for the Nagano Olympic men's downhill course Wednesday observed that snow has completely covered plants in the once-disputed area at the Happo-one ridge in the ski resort of Hakuba.

An unofficial tour by the six-man team in charge of course preparations found there were no tree branches above the two meters of snow which has accumulated on the area between 1,680 meters above sea level and the starting point set at 1,765 meters.

The members walked down from the starting point in dense fog for a 30-minute inspection of the area, which had been at the center of a bitter dispute over the start of the downhill event.

''We're relieved to see snow up there and hopefully there will be one more meter of snow,'' said Takao Yamamoto, a Nagano Prefecture environmental adviser who headed the six-man team.

Yamamoto pointed out that some branches are still detected sticking out of the snow in an area just outside the special protected zone.

For five years, the Nagano Olympic organizing committee (NAOC) had stubbornly maintained that the start of alpine skiing's premier event could not go higher than 1,680 meters since this would encroach upon the national park area.

The International Ski Federation (FIS), pointing to the tens of thousands of recreational skiers who ski through the park each winter, continued to press for a start at 1,800 meters to ensure that it would be a true Olympic test.

The two sides reached a compromise in December, agreeing to set the start at 1,765 meters and allow the Olympic skiers to briefly ski over the national park area in two locations.

A final decision on whether the course can be used for the Feb. 8 men's downhill will be made Jan. 26.

(January 14, 1998)