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Olympians Seek Luck at Temple

February 14, 1998

NAGANO, Japan (AP) _ They are the nightmare of every Olympic athlete. The freak gusts of wind, the unforeseen bumps on the ski course _ those bits of dumb luck that ruin medal chances, even careers.

But now, there may be a cure. Well, maybe.

As the thousands of athletes in Nagano for the Winter Games are finding out, this mountain-ringed city is more than merely a transit station for skiers and hotsprings seekers.

It is home to a venerable old Buddhist temple with one of the largest selections of amulets in all of Japan. And with fate staring them in the face, Olympians and their supporters are finding the temple’s charms too much to resist.

``Casey, skate like a cheetah in your 1,000m _ Mom and Dad,″ said a wooden votive tablet hung out with thousands of others in front of the main hall of Nagano’s Zenko-ji, which is among Japan’s oldest temples.

Whether that wish will be granted remains to be seen _ the men’s 1,000-meter speedskating race is scheduled for Sunday. Casey FitzRandolph of Wisconsin is the only Casey on the entry list.

Another wish on a wooden tablet will take even longer:

``May Sion host the 2006 Games,″ it said in French, English and Japanese. Sion, Switzerland, is one of six cities bidding for the 2006 Winter Games.

Most Japanese believe in a mix of both Buddhist ideals and the traditions of Shinto, a loosely defined body of beliefs and customs that is native to this country.

Tens of millions of Japanese flock to their neighborhood temple or shrine on New Years to buy amulets, and the income they generate helps keep many of the temples financially afloat.

Zenko-ji is one of the best-stocked temples around.

The votive tablets, which usually have a painting of some lucky animal or object on one side and a written wish on the other, are just one of the many varieties of good luck charms it has to offer.

Those seeking luck here can buy hologram amulets, quartz amulets, flower amulets, lucky Buddha footprint amulets, incense charms, shell charms, strong leg charms, lucky golden mallets.

There are amulets for good health, for safe driving, for passing examinations, for recovering from disease, for love _ all small enough to comfortably fit in purse or pocket.

There are 55 kinds of Buddhist rosary _ starting at less than 1,000 yen (about $9) and going all the way up to 40,000 yen (about $320) for pure quartz with purple silk tassles.

``These are selling very well with foreigners,″ temple employee Toshiko Nishizawa said as she held up a round, red doll that is supposed to be a likeness of the Buddhist saint Bodhidharma.

According to Japanese custom, one of the doll’s eyes is painted in when its owner makes a wish. The other eye is painted in after the wish is granted.

``For us Japanese, it is only natural to buy amulets, it’s a part of our tradition,″ Nishizawa said. ``Many people really believe in them, too.″

Speedskater Monique Garbrecht wasn’t quite convinced.

``For us Germans, it is all very strange,″ she said.

Maybe she shouldn’t have gone home empty-handed.

Garbrecht finished eighth after her first race in the women’s 500 meters Friday. She was not a favorite to medal.

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