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Japan Favors Liashenko, Tomba

February 13, 1998

NAGANO, Japan (AP) _ Paul Kariya isn’t even here, but Japanese hockey fans love him just the same.

``He’s so cool,″ said Naoko Okada, a 21-year-old student, holding up handmade signs that spelled out ``CAN″ and a Canadian flag in the stands with three friends at the Canada-Belarus game Friday.

``He has the same Japanese blood flowing in him,″ said 27-year-old Kazuhiko Tateya, proudly wearing a jersey from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Kariya’s NHL team.

Kariya’s withdrawal from the Olympics because of a concussion earlier this month came as a big disappointment to his fans in Japan.

Although Kariya has never been too eager to talk about his ancestry, the media here repeatedly played up the Japanese connection, as though he were a long-lost son come home.

There’s another sure formula for stardom in Japan: Be seen in an advertisement.

Ukrainian figure skater Elena Liashenko is not even close in medal contention to Americans Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski, but an IBM ad in newspapers and on TV was all she needed to become a favorite here.

``Once she’s in an ad, you see her over and over, and you see her name over and over,″ said Emiko Arai, a 31-year-old elementary school teacher.

Having received fan mail and lots of stuffed animals from Japan, Liashenko knows she will be performing before devout fans.

``I don’t want to let them down, and I want to skate my best,″ she said through an interpreter. ``I’m excited and happy to be so popular.″

Nagano has delivered Japan’s own stars in two gold medalists _ speedskater Hiroyasu Shimizu and freestyle skier Tae Satoya.

Filial piety, an important virtue in Japanese society, was a key theme in both wins.

Again and again, TV viewers watched a tearful Shimizu running up to his mother with his gold medal. His mother clutched a photo of her husband, who died of cancer several years ago.

And much ado was made of the fact that Satoya carried a picture of her dead father in her pocket during her race.

But Japan’s perennial Olympic star _ as with many the world over _ may be Alberto Tomba.

``You aren’t going to find anyone who dislikes Tomba,″ said Ichiro Yoshizawa, 66, who runs a ski shop. ``He skis with this grand style, he’s a joy to watch.″

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