The setting was Heidenlike, a term freshly minted today to describe the relationship between certain athletes and the press. America's winter wonders, Eric and Beth Heiden, and their coach would be available for comment, but questions would have to fly over a chain-link fence.

The Heidens like to keep their distance from their public, having already hired a New York agent to separate the commercial wheat from the chaff if, as expected, they glide off with most of the speed-skating gold from these Games.

From afar, it seemed a typically American phenomenon. Having ignored them for 3.9 years, the media had pounced upon speed skaters a month before the Olympics and would not let them escape its relentless grasp.

The scenario has played ever so often. Pre-Olympic heroes are created, hyped for their golden charm and golden skills, forecast for an inordinate number of medals, said to be certain to dominate their events. The athletes know no peace.

And heaven help them if they somehow act mortally during the competition, if they fail to deliver the unrealistic mother lode everyone but themselves had come to expect. Post-Olympic criticism can be as harsh as pre-Olympic praise was lavish.

So the first emotion here today was pity. The Heidens and their coach, Dianne Holum, were standing just off the ice inside the speed-skating rink -- several feet apart -- and questions came at them from perhaps 100 voices, more rapidly than the Olympic snowfall.

These athletes can fend for themselves. A sensible atmosphere, indoors in a conference room, where nearly all other mass interviews with American athletes had taken place, was available.

These sudden celebrities wanted matters on their own terms.The press would slip and slide toward them.

And Eric Heiden, who can easily be imagined as being special in nearly any sport he chose, with a wholesomely rugged middle-American face, was saying: "Something like this is normal in Norway. It's like this all over Europe."

Oh.

The Heidens and the lesser stars of Dianne Holum's stable are Americans famous, frequently revered, in every frosty part of the athletic world except America. If there is at least mild resentment about this, it is understandable.

And the confidence that the American speed skaters, in particular Eric Heiden, will gobble up most of the glory from these Games has not been manufactured by outside sources. They anticipate more success than any Olympic team in any Olympic sport has ever known.

"Gold for gold," Holum said of the reason for the team's uniquely colored uniforms.

"We're loose, as usual," said Beth Heiden. "The pressure of the press has really been on us. But other people's eyes aren't so important if you have the respect of skaters. This isn't life and death."

This respect borders on awe for Eric Heiden, favored to win all five men's events, from 500 meters through 10,000 meters.Beth could win the women's 1,500 and 3,000 meters, at least. Like some track and field athletes, Americans who failed to make their teams would be heroes in other countries.

That Americans can be so preeminent in a sport that is so obscure in America is bewildering. Until the Olympics were awarded here, there was just one speed-skating rink in the entire country, in West Allis, Wis., which is about 75 miles from the Heidens' home in Madison.

For additional emphasis, the United States has more skiers than any country in the world -- and few internationally respected skiers.

With practically every practical disadvantage, the U.S. skaters won 27 of the 30 gold medals available during worldwide meets last season. Beth Heiden won the women's championship; Eric won his third straight men's title.

"It's one thing to prove a year ahead of time that you can do it," Holum said. "We (also) showed that the week before we could do it."

She was referring to the world sprint championships last week, where Eric bestrode the men's competition and Beth finished second to a lightly regarded East German scarcely known beyond the border.

Eric won the 1,000 meters by an astonishing two seconds, or about 35 yards.

Casually, Holum said today: "I expect the gap to be more like two or three seconds here."

As usual, there is considerable paranoia among U.S. officials about what to expect from the East Germans and Soviets. Their secrecy and history inspires more negative anticipation than may be necessary -- or fair.

Who have they been hiding, ready to burst onto the rink and blow everyone else off?

"In the sprints," said Hollum, "they showed less than what I expected. Their women didn't do well at all." Clearly, she expects Karin Enke to fade into the icy woodwork from which she emerged so spectacularly last week.

Clearly, she and the other skaters believe they have every right to expect an Olympic reaffirmation of their worldwide dominence last year, something like that 90 percent success ratio in the nine events.

Their attitude is a familiar one: "The only way we can lose is by beating ourselves." We have seen it so often, from the Boston Celtics, the Green Bay Packers and so many others. They cannot imagine losing. And that air often permeates the opposition, which by the time the event begins cannot imagine winning.

Beth Heiden agreed, saying: "They used to look at us and laugh and say: 'There go the jokers (because of their pre-meet attitude).' Now they watch us. They follow us. Whatever we do."