Italian city puts final touches on Olympic preparation

As Turin prepares for the Games next week, its reserved residents begin to feel the 'passion.'

Coming from the mayor of a city about to host the Winter Olympics, Sergio Chiamparino's deepest wish might seem strange. "I just hope that it won't snow again until the end of the Games," he says bluntly.

A heavy snowfall last weekend brought Turin, the host city for the 20th Winter Games, to a halt. That is not the kind of experience Mr. Chiamparino wants to repeat when several hundred thousand Olympic visitors are in town.

The same storm, however, made Evelina Christillin's dreams come true. All winter, one of the driest on record, the slopes above Turin had remained bare. With more than a foot of snow now covering the hillsides, "we have a much better backdrop for TV and for the spectators," says the vice president of the Games' organizing committee.

A week away from the opening ceremony on Feb. 10, the extension to Turin's airport is finally open, the venues have been tested, and the Olympic villages are ready to receive their guests.

But even a fresh layer of snow cannot hide the fact that the city is not completely ready.

The sports facilities - newly built arenas, and refurbished venues in Turin and on the ski slopes 90 minutes' drive into the Alps - are elegant and, organizers say, have proved their practicality during test events over the last year.

But the new ice rink where speed-skating events will be staged, for example, has not been landscaped, and sits in the middle of acres of mud and rubble. And streets are still being repaired all over the city, to the fury of drivers and public-transport passengers stuck in traffic jams.

Several years of construction projects have complicated many residents' lives. That may help to explain the apparent lack of early enthusiasm for the Games, whose $4.1 billion cost has raised the same questions here that dog any modern Olympic Games.

At the same time, say observers, "Torinese" are not flamboyant Neapolitans, nor emotional Romans. Unlike their Mediterranean cousins, they are reserved and slow to express themselves.

Indeed, the Games' slogan - "Passion lives here" - "is simply not true," says Gabriele Ferraris, born and bred in Turin, and now the Metro editor of the city's leading daily, La Stampa. "It is very hard to ignite a Torinese's passion. But once it is aflame, it leads to big things. As the Games approach, I see people beginning to feel it."

"In Turin, our spirit is to talk about the problems and only later be happy with the way we solved them," adds Chiamparino, who often chides his fellow residents for being a city of grumblers. But the Games, he hopes, will stir new pride in a town that has suffered deeply in recent years from the decline of its leading company, the car manufacturer Fiat.

Games organizers also complain that they had to battle indifference in the country as a whole about the Olympics, which "for a long time were very much seen as a regional, North-West Italian affair," says Ms. Christillin, who led Turin's bid committee.

All that has changed in recent weeks, however, not least because a local hero, Giorgio Rocca, won five World Cup slalom ski races in a row, putting him and the Games where he is expected to win a medal on the front page of Italian newspapers and magazines.

Disappointing ticket sales have picked up, says Christillin, and now stand at 700,000. Organizers hope that - as happened in Athens during the 2004 Summer Olympics - sales once the Games begin will push the figure over their 800,000 target. "We are quite happy" with the results so far, Christillin says.

At any rate, the 80,000 free tickets to the nightly concerts planned for the Medals Plaza were snapped up in four days - a sign, says Chiamparino, that "people are getting caught up in the Olympic spirit and enthusiasm."

The mayor and officials at the Games organizing committee say they have done all that they can to prepare for the influx of 9,000 extra policemen, 5,000 athletes and their support staff, 10,000 media workers, and a million spectators. Their plans, however, are at the mercy of the weather.

The roads into the Alps that lead to the skiing, snowboarding, and bobsled venues are narrow, two-lane affairs snaking up steep-sided valleys. "They are not perfect to allow transport in bad weather," worries Christillin. "If we get another heavy snowfall like last weekend.... "

That, however, is out of her hands. "All we have to do now," she says, "is to keep our nerves cool, and keep our fingers crossed."

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