Politicians take a lot of criticism for going to exotic places on "fact finding missions." But Mayor Palmer DePaulis' recent Tokyo trip to check out Salt Lake City's Winter Olympic competition has yielded some valuable insights.

DePaulis reported this week that Nagano, Japan, now seems to be the front-runner for the 1998 Winter Games - but only because the city is spending so much money on public relations and lobbying.In the view of many, Utah's bid suffered a setback recently when Atlanta was chosen as the site for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games. The thinking is that the International Olympic Committee is unlikely to turn around and award the 1998 Winter Games to the same country.

But if other factors are considered, Utah still holds the trump cards in terms of facilities and location.

Nagano is a little resort town near Japan's "Snow Country," but it suffers from the same problems found throughout the island: not much space, overcrowding and an economy so strong that the cost of living makes international visitors cringe.

The highway to Nagano is long, winding and very narrow. The ski areas are pressure packed, the facilities a bit spartan and the town itself - with its quaint streets and mom and pop businesses - hardly seems up to handling an avalanche of international visitors.

Given all that, Nagano may be the one area of the world where a person can feel claustrophobic on a ski run.

The mayor is right. Our wide-open spaces and superb facilities in Utah are our strength and could still carry the day with IOC voters. After all, the idea is supposed to be to pick the best site for the Olympics.

Utah may not have the money Nagano does for publicity, but if seeing is believing, Utah still stands an excellent chance of getting the games.