Housing for Olympic athletes is "excellent" in Salt Lake City and better than other locations bidding for the 1998 Winter Games, an International Olympic Committee member said.

The positive assessment Monday from Finnish IOC member Peter Tallberg comes not long after another committee member suggested Salt Lake's housing for athletes was the city's only drawback.Committee and site evaluation team member Pal Schmitt of Hungary said during a visit in January that the rooms where athletes would stay are too small and not comfortable enough.

But Tallberg, who had toured the Salt Lake sites since Saturday, disagreed. "I am of the opinion that the athletes are most important, but they shouldn't be treated as kings," the former Olympian said.

Salt Lake's bid proposes housing athletes in dormitories on the University of Utah campus where they would have use of the student union building and physical education complex.

Tallberg's opinion carries some weight as he is chairman of the IOC's Athlete's Commission and takes an interest in "everything to do with athletes."

Most appealing about housing athletes at the U., Tallberg said, is the close proximity to where the athletic events would be held.

"It's about 20 minutes to each venue, which is excellent," he said. The farthest venue is a 55-minute drive to Snowbasin resort near Ogden where downhill skiing competition would take place.

The nearby physical education complex and student union building where athletes can relax and unwind was also appealing, he said, noting it was to Salt Lake's advantage to have the facilities in place and not just proposals on paper.

Tallberg, who has visited all but two of the six cities vying for the 1998 Winter Games, also rated Utah roads and traffic conditions better than the other locations - which may come as a surprise to local motorists.

An IOC member's argument for close proximity to venues bodes well for the Salt Lake bid committee's push to locate a speed-skating oval near the University of Utah. The proposed site on Guardsman's Way has met with opposition from residents and U. officials, who don't like the parking spaces it would eliminate or its high visibility if the oval is covered.

But Tallberg downplayed the need to cover the oval if it creates a problem. "You don't need to build monuments that the city can't afford," he said, adding that another site within the city wouldn't hurt Salt Lake's bid.

Tallberg said he represents a growing movement within the IOC that wants to select Olympic hosts based on the interests of athletes, not on politics. He explained that the selection of Albertville, France, for the 1992 Winter Games was a political move to appease France, which lost to Spain for the Summer Games, and the athletes and spectators will suffer.

"We will have a horrible traffic problem there," Tallberg said.

The political choice for the 1998 Winter Games seems to be anywhere but Salt Lake City because of Atlanta's selection as host of the 1996 Summer Games. But the choice of Atlanta bucked the political trend, which pointed toward Athens, said Dave Johnson, Salt Lake bid committee vice president.

Johnson noted that Tallberg - one of 62 IOC members scheduled to visit before selection is made in June - was on the site selection committee that inspected hosts for the 1996 Summer Games.

"There is a younger generation of IOC members that are very interested in doing the right thing for the Olympic movement" and looking out for the athletes, he said.

So, Salt Lake's strategy has been to counter its political weakness by capitalizing on the movement to select sites based on accommodations for athletes.