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Original Issue

A cozy show of coexistence

Russian and Swedish skaters piled up the gold medals, but Japanese officials set some sort of record for pushing international brotherhood

With one eye on the host's role for next year's Olympics and the other on the political pitfalls of international sport, Japanese officials made elaborate plans to foster cozy coexistence at this week's World Speed Skating Championships at Karuizawa, 190 miles north of Tokyo. Though it has no diplomatic relations with Red China, North Korea, Mongolia or East Germany, the Japanese government granted visas to skaters of those countries. It also banned flags and national anthems except at the victory ceremony. All 90 competitors would be fed and housed together and travel together.

Predictably, there were a few small hassles. South Korea pulled out as its government forbade competition against North Korea. Whereupon North Korea filed a formal demand (rejected) that it be labeled the People's Democratic Republic of Korea instead of simply North Korea. The Chinese Mongolians and North Koreans broke the travel-together rule to take a separate train. And there were complaints about the menu. The North Koreans demanded more rice. The four Mongolians said that the lack of goat meat and goat's milk impaired their chances. The Norwegians groused that they had no black bread, and raided Norwegian ships in Tokyo harbor to procure a supply. But considering what has happened at other international meets recently, Karuizawa was a model. Each day crowds of 11,000 turned out, including a small Communist claque that loudly cheered the Chinese and North Koreans, politely applauded the Russians and host Japanese and greeted other competitors with stony silence.

Much gamesmanship preceded the men's races. The favored Norwegians, Swedes and Russians seldom went on the ice, and when they did they loafed through their workouts to frustrate opposition coaches who lined the practice rink with stopwatches. Instead, they did endless calisthenics and jogged through the hills. Meanwhile, their coaches, to dodge the favorite's role, moaned that the skaters were afflicted with everything from colds to blisters.

In the women's division, however, there was no attempt at gamesmanship. The powerful Soviet skaters had won the ladies' world championship 11 straight years, and Coach Leonid Nikonov admitted frankly that "this is my best team ever." And indeed it was. The best of the Russian women, pert, 23-year-old Lydia Skoblikova, was absolutely unbeatable. She won all four ladies' races at 500, 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000 meters, broke her own world record at 1,000 by clocking 1:31.8. Right below Skoblikova were four teammates who finished two-three-four-five. Said Soviet Coach Nikonov, "We have another half dozen at home almost as good as these. I only wish our men were as good as our women."

But the Soviet male skaters were badly off form at Karuizawa, all save matchless old Evgeny Grishin, who hasn't been beaten at 500 meters in seven years. He won his specialty again but failed to qualify for the overall championship. The surprise hero of the men's competition was Sweden's Jonny Nilsson, a stocky, 19-year-old gamesman who had kept himself skillfully out of the favorite's role until the action got under way. Then, skating against Knut Johannesen in a 10,000-meter heat, in an opaque snowstorm that coated his face and shoulders in white, Nilsson left his opponent fully 300 yards astern and took 13.6 seconds off Johannesen's record in clocking 15:33. Nilsson also set world records for the 5,000-meter (7:34.3), overall scoring (178.447) and for bland confidence. In appraising his smashing victory, he said afterward, "It came easily to me. I have been skating only three years. Perhaps I will get even better as I grow older and gain better technique."