CALGARY, FEB. 12 -- Lyle Nelson, a 39-year-old biathlete competing in his fourth Winter Olympics and the oldest member of the U.S. team, will be the American flagbearer in the opening ceremonies Saturday that begin these Winter Games.

Nelson was chosen to lead the United States into McMahon Stadium by a vote of team captains, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced today. He has competed for 14 years, was voted the sport's national athlete of the year in 1985 and was the 1987 10-kilometer biathlon champion. For trivialists, he also was a one-time winner of the NBC program "Survival of the Fittest."

Nelson is a native of Boise, Idaho, who now lives in Essex, Vt. He graduated from West Point in 1971, got a master's degree from Southern California, and is currently working on his PhD in human development. He is also a captain in the National Guard.

Nelson made his first Olympic team in 1976. This will be his last. He said earlier in the week his age makes no difference. "When I'm on the starting line, I'll be going out to win it," he said.

Bad News for Local Paddlers

International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that no new sports will be added to the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. That was not good news for white-water kayak enthusiasts in the Washington area, who have lobbied for its inclusion.

Local paddlers have dominated the U.S. national team for almost the last decade, including world champions and Washingtonians Jon Lugbill and David Hearn. White-water was included just once in the Olympics, in 1972, and on that occasion Washingtonian Jamie McEwan won a bronze medal.

That started the movement in the area, which has been instrumental in lobbying. Barcelona was considered a good prospect, since that area includes a number of natural rivers.

End to Visa Problems Sought

U.S. Olympic Committee President Robert Helmick said in a news conference that he expects the State Department to grant visas to all bona fide athletes for competitions in the United States, regardless of their political affiliations or those of their nations. The statement was the latest in Helmick's discussions with the State Department, which twice in the last year has denied visas to athletes.

"We want it on the record that we disagree with the State Department in denying visas for bona fide athletes in bona fide competitions," Helmick said.

A visa was denied for a Chilean shooter at the Pan American Games last summer in Indianapolis after the State Department received reports the athlete was a former member of the secret police who had participated in human rights violations. More recently it denied visas to some North Korean speed skaters seeking to enter a competition in St. Louis.

"I'm not saying we should admit terrorists," Helmick said. "I'm saying we should admit athletes."

The denials could hurt the effort to procure the Winter Olympics in 1992 for Anchorage, Alaska. The other leading prospective site, Budapest, is said to have gained an advantage when so many Eastern Bloc countries agreed to participate in the Summer Games in Seoul; the IOC may feel it has an obligation to reward the Eastern Bloc.

Reluctant Cover Girl

Figure skater Debi Thomas has her picture splashed across a number of national magazines this week, most prominently Time. She did not make the cover of Sports Illustrated, however, which coach Alex McGowan considers a good omen, since that cover is considered a jinx.

Take, for example, the cover of Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway the week before the Super Bowl game against the Washington Redskins.

"The kiss of death," McGowan said. "When I saw John Elway on the cover I went right out and bet the Redskins."

Thomas, the 1987 world champion and reigning national titlist, will be perhaps the most watched athlete here, in her much-anticipated meeting with current world and defending Olympian champion Katarina Witt of East Germany.

"I may have made all those covers, but if you open them up every single one says Katarina is the favorite," she said.

But Time has a habit of choosing gold medal winners. Some examples: skater Dorothy Hamill, and skiers Ingemar Stenmark and Phil Mahre.

"All the omens are good," McGowan said.

Thomas had a second session with famed dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago. This one went much better than her first meeting with him several months ago, arranged by their respective agents when Thomas was seeking help with her dancing. Then, she was overweight and out of shape and he was unsure who she was.

"The first time, I thought he'd say, 'Who is this fat turkey?' " she said.

This time, Thomas was in shape and had just won the national title, which Baryshnikov watched. When she met him at the Garden, he greeted her with "Hi ya champ."