- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Aggie Koc and her six friends are taking their love of Olympic figure skating around the world. They have attended two national skating competitions — in St. Louis and Portland, Ore. — as well as the 2003 World Championships in the District. Now Ms. Koc, 21, and her friends are following the U.S. figure-skating team to Turin, Italy, for the Winter Olympics.

“The Olympic Games give you a break from what goes on in everyday life,” said Ms. Koc of New York City. “The last couple weeks, I feel like I’ve been walking around with this huge smile on my face.”

They will arrive in Turin Feb. 18, halfway through the Games and in time for ice dancing and the ladies short and long programs. Their trip, planned years ago, will cost about $4,000 to $5,000 each, but they say it’s worth seeing the Games in person instead of on TV.

“We’re staying right by where they do the medal ceremony every night,” she said. “We’re going to look out our window and see the center of it all.”

Ms. Koc, her friends and other Americans will fill Turin’s hotels by Friday, when the XX Olympic Winter Games begin.

“Now, you can still find airfare, but so many of the hotel rooms have been booked from the get-go,” said Heather Leisman, director of merchandising at Internet travel company Orbitz.

CoSport, the official Olympic ticket agent in the United States, has sold nearly twice as many tickets to the Turin Games than for previous Winter Games held outside the U.S.

CoSport has sold 18,000 tickets — from travel packages to single-event tickets — to the Turin Games, compared with about 10,000 tickets for the 1998 Nagano Games in Japan and the 1994 Lillehammer Games in Norway, said Mark Lewis, president of the Far Hills, N.J., company.

Ticket sales “have been really strong for these games,” Mr. Lewis said. “Obviously, you can’t compare it to Salt Lake City [in 2002] when the Games were in Americans’ back yard, but compared to the Winter Games outside the U.S. recently — Nagano, Albertville, Lillehammer — it’s above the level we saw for those games.”

While the Olympic events and star athletes such as figure skater Michelle Kwan, Alpine skier Bode Miller and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno are drawing crowds, so is the setting. Turin and the northern Italian countryside are home to storied architecture, art, history and cuisine.

“Italy is a place people have on their list of places they’ve always wanted to go,” Ms. Leisman said. “It’s a great combination to see Italy, catch some of the Games and enjoy the rest of the county’s dining and art.”

On Mobissimo.com, an online travel agency based in San Francisco, the number of searches for flights to Italy rose from 200 in an average week to about 3,000 last week, said co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Beatrice Tarka.

Americans still trying to finagle a way to see the figure skating, skiing, curling, skeleton or other events in person are booking flights to other cities such as Milan or Rome.

Last-minute airfare from Washington to Milan and two nights in a two-star hotel there cost $624 per person as of yesterday, Ms. Leisman said .

“We saw the peak of bookings a couple weeks ago,” Ms. Leisman said. “Once the Games start, and this week as the media is starting to ramp up, you do start to see more searching going on.”

Orbitz does not disclose the number of bookings or searches on its Web site.

Ticket sales started off slowly for the Turin Games.

The 2006 Olympic Organizing Committee has sold 700,000 of the 1 million available tickets. Slightly more than half, or 390,000, of those tickets have been sold outside of Italy. Officials hope to sell 82 percent of the tickets and have expressed hope that procrastinating Italians will buy tickets at the last minute.

In 1998, a total of 84.2 percent of tickets to the Nagano Games had been sold a week before the Games began. By the end of the Olympics, 89.4 percent of those tickets were sold.

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