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Saturday, August 28, 2004
Updated: August 29, 11:23 AM ET
Winter Games await

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- As soon as the flame is extinguished in Athens on Sunday night, the clock starts ticking in the Italian Alps.

Seventeen-and-a-half months from now -- 530 days to be exact -- the Olympic flame will be ignited at the opening ceremony of the Winter Games in Turin.

"We are emotional,'' organizing committee chief Valentino Castellani said. "We have the feeling that we are stepping onto the stage. The bell for the last lap is ringing for us.''

Turin, the industrial capital of the northwestern Piedmont region, will be the first Italian city to host the Winter Olympics since Cortina D'Ampezzo in 1956.

While Athens was beset by years of organizational headaches, Turin is experiencing similar problems on a smaller scale. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has repeatedly pressed organizers to show a "sense of urgency.''

Turin's main challenge: getting the rest of Italy to take notice.

"We have to make a jump in the involvement of the nation,'' said Castellani, a 64-year-old engineering professor who served as Turin mayor during 1993-2001. "Our strategic goal at the moment is to get the nation with us. These are Italian Games.''

Winter sports are popular in the north of the country, but have little following in the south. Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government and state broadcasting network RAI have been accused of failing to promote the Games.

Rogge will travel to Rome late next month to meet with Berlusconi to try to enlist his backing.

"He is a man of sports, mainly soccer,'' Castellani said of Berlusconi, who owns the AC Milan club. "I believe when he will be briefed correctly on the importance for our country, he will be behind us.''

Security is another major issue. Greece spent $1.5 billion to protect the Athens Games. Italy, part of the U.S.-led coalition that sent troops to Iraq, has received reported threats from Islamic militant groups. Earlier this week, an Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni, was killed after being taken hostage in Iraq.

Turin's chief financial officer, Marco San Pietro, said the committee recently signed a $200 million insurance policy covering cancellation of the games due to war or terrorism. The IOC, which took out cancellation insurance for the first time for Athens, plans to do the same for Turin and other future host cities.

Turin, meanwhile, is making a promotional push, starting with the launch of its mascot Sept. 28, marking the 500-day countdown. Tickets go on sale Nov. 4. The presentation of the Olympic torch relay will be made in Rome in December.

Earlier this month, organizers unveiled their "look of the Games'' material, including three-dimensional pictograms based on the concept of the "piazza,'' or city square.

"A touch of Italian style is important,'' Castellani said over a cup of espresso. "La bellezza e sostanza [beauty is substance].''

The games, which have an operational budget of $1.38 billion, will run Feb. 10-26 and feature about 2,500 athletes from 85 countries. The ice sports will be held in Turin, with most of the snow sports centered around the Sestriere ski resort.

The region will stage 17 events this winter, including the European short-track speedskating championships, Jan. 14-15, and the European Figure Skating Championships, Jan. 24-30. However, there are concerns whether the new 8,250-capacity Palavela arena will be ready by then. The bobsled venue at Pariol-Grenieri also is behind schedule.

"We don't have concerns about delays or problems for when the games start,'' Castellani said. "We are perfectly on schedule for that. What we do have a tight schedule for are the test events.''

Also pressing is the need to find or upgrade 1,000 more hotel beds in the mountain areas. Castellani expects a solution by the end of September.

Turin has raised almost 83 percent of its marketing revenue budget of $72 million, but Castellani acknowledged that securing the remaining share will be the most difficult job.

He is looking for more state-owned companies to sign up as sponsors. The aerospace and defense firm Finmecannica is the only one so far.

Meantime, Turin can take heart that, after all the anxiety over construction delays and security worries, Athens managed to pull it off.

"The level of expectation was so low that everything that is normal is seen as exceptional,'' Castellani said. "We don't want to appear perfect now. We don't want to build expectations too high. We want to leave a good surprise.''