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Whether or not he wins the gold medal today in the 50-meter free
pistol competition at the Wolf Creek Shooting Complex, Sweden's
Ragnar Skanaker will make history at these Atlanta Games by
becoming, at 62, the only competitor in any sport to appear in
seven consecutive Olympics. Skanaker won the gold in the free
pistol in his Games debut in 1972. Then, following a fifth-place
finish and a seventh in the next two Olympics, respectively, he
won back-to-back silver medals in '84 and '88 and then a bronze
in Barcelona.

He could just as easily have had three golds by now, for in '84
he finished only one point behind the winner, China's Xu
Haifeng, and in '92, in one of the most thrilling matches in
Olympic shooting history, he was just one shot away from
victory. In the free pistol each competitor has 2 hours to fire
60 shots from a .22-caliber target gun. The top eight marksmen
advance to the finals, where a shooter has 75 seconds to fire
each of 10 rounds. With one shot remaining in Barcelona,
Skanaker, Konstantin Lukashik of Belarus and Wang Yifu of China
were in a virtual dead heat. A perfect last-shot score of 10
could have won the gold medal for any of them, but each scored a
9, Lukashik finishing with 658.00 points, Wang with 657.92 and
Skanaker with 657.91.

Aiming at a target 50 meters distant and less than 19 1/2 inches
in diameter, with a bull's-eye two inches wide, requires a
steady hand and a sharp eye. Most of the competitors, therefore,
are many years younger than Skanaker. At the 1988 Seoul Games,
the then 54-year-old Skanaker was at least twice the age of the
other top-five finishers. In Barcelona, Lukashik was only 16,
Skanaker's junior by 42 years, and two of the Swede's own
teammates were 21 and 18 years younger than he was. So Skanaker
is indeed a phenomenon, an old-timer with nerves and the vision
of a much younger man.

Skanaker began shooting competitively some 42 years ago, when,
as a 20-year-old military jet pilot, he took up the rifle. He
soon switched to the pistol, mainly, he said, because he found
the required leather clothing for rifle competition far too
cumbersome and uncomfortable. Besides, he says, as a pilot he
already wore a sidearm, "so I had to train with it anyway." He
finished 67th in his first international pistol competition, in
1966, and then went on to win three world championships in
addition to his Olympic medals.

Skanaker is the latest representative of a strong Swedish
tradition in marksmanship. Early in this century the father-son
rifle team of Oscar and Alfred Swahn combined to win 15 Olympic
team and individual medals at four Olympics. And pistol shooter
Torsten Ullmann won a gold in 1936 and a bronze in '48 in three
Olympic appearances. But in terms of long-term excellence,
Skanaker surpasses all his countrymen. And if he should decide
to try to extend his string to eight straight Olympics and
qualify for the Sydney Games in 2000, he will also match the
record for the most Olympic appearances, now held jointly by
equestrian riders Piero d'Inzeo and Raimondo d'Inzeo of Italy
and yachtsmen Paul V. Elvstrom of Denmark, Durwood Knowles of
Great Britain and Hubert Raudaschi of Austria. Those five
sportsmen all competed in the Games from 1948 to '92.

For that matter, if Skanaker should by chance win a gold in
2000, he would also become the oldest of all Olympic champions,
beating the record of his countryman Oscar Swahn, who was 64
when he was a member of the winning Swedish rifle team in 1912.
Skanaker isn't certain he wants to carry on that much longer,
but he does plan to be a part of the Sydney Games at least as
coach of his wife, Anna, who is, at 30, a world-class air pistol
markswoman. However, Anna is convinced her husband will raise
his sights one more time. "He has to," she says, "to get that
last record."

COLOR PHOTO: TONY TOMSIC A last-shot 10 in Barcelona would have given Skanaker two golds 20 years apart. [Ragnar Skanaker shooting]