- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

TURIN, Italy — The famous Piazza Castello in the heart of the city has been transformed into the medals plaza for the Winter Olympics, and talk about your clash of cultures: Baroque meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

No kidding. Not far from where a medieval castle, the Palazzo Madama, sits in the middle of a giant plaza surrounded by huge, ornate churches and other buildings, the medals stage and jumbo screen behind it sit tucked beneath a futuristic-looking structure that resembles the mothership from a sci-fi movie.

“I like the set-up,” said Vincent Labri, a Canadian speedskater who came with a teammate and a coach to watch last night. “I like the buildings.”

This is a new concept at the Olympics, handing out the medals in a historical area of the host city, and the idea has gone over well. Crowds have jammed the plaza every evening and last night was no exception. Ski jumpers, biathletes and Nordic and cross-country skiers received their medals. The winners leaped upon the podium in celebration and they smiled and waved.

One man waved a big flag that resembled the red, black and yellow German flag, except that it had the words, “Sven Fischer Fan Club” written on it. He took pictures of his hero, a German biathlete.

National anthems played, and flags were raised. Some athletes threw their bouquets — which were presented along with their medals — into the crowd. They kept the hardware, though. The fans shivered, even those sitting in the VIP section who were given complimentary red blankets, and dramatic music blasted through loudspeakers.

After the medals presentation, there were fireworks and the musical act of the evening — Canadian rocker Avril Lavigne.

It was a unique juxtaposition of old and new.

In this new presentation, the common folk have to press together outside barriers, while athletes and other important people get to sit or stand close to the stage. But even for competitors, it can be a tough ticket, especially if their country is not receiving medals on that particular night.

“They’re hard to get,” Labri said. “You have to ask five days in advance. You have to ask the right guy.”

This was Labri’s fourth trip to the ceremonies. He knows the right guy — the person in charge of handing out Canada’s tickets.

“He’s a former speedskater,” Labri said.

The plaza was designed in 1584 and, according to descriptions, it represents the passage of Turin into the Renaissance. It is a major landmark and remains a center of activity. Three major streets, Via Po, Via Garibaldi and via Roma — often called the Rodeo Drive of Turin for its expensive stores — feed into it. Just off the square are archways and porticoes and the Biblioteca Reale, that holds some famous paintings by Leonardo da Vinci.

Who could have imagined? So close to priceless works of art and magnificent architecture stood the head of the Sven Fischer Fan Club, waving his flag and using a digital camera to snap pictures of Sven, who stood on an Olympic stage under a spaceship.

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