- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Stride across Piazza San Giovanni’s large cobblestones toward Turin’s main cathedral, home to the Holy Shroud, and chances are you will be greeted by Gino, who runs a souvenir stand that he wheels around on his 1973 scooter.

Search among the postcards and snow globes for a Torino 2006 trinket, though, and you’re out of luck. Instead, Gino gladly will offer a key chain or figurine from soccer’s 1990 World Cup. What about something from the upcoming Olympics?

“Nothing,” says Gino, who wouldn’t give his last name. “But there’s still time. I’ll have something in February.”

Besides plenty of steel scaffolding, colorful cranes and piles of dirt, it’s tough to tell the Winter Games will be coming in a matter of weeks to this home of broad boulevards, Baroque architecture and the majestic backdrop of the Alps.

Signs or flags trumpeting the Games aren’t up yet, ticket sales are lagging, snow is scarce, and Italian athletes are complaining openly about a lack of interest.

“There’s a month to go, and where are the Olympics?” asked Beppe Fossati, editor of Torino Cronaca, a local newspaper. “The Olympic spirit is missing.”

A city known mainly as a center of industry is undergoing major changes ahead of the Feb. 10 to 26 Games in what locals see as a chance to become a tourist destination.

Right now, however, the Olympics are one of the best-kept secrets in sports — even in Italy. As of last week, 585,000 tickets had been sold of about 1 million available. Only 40 percent went to fans; 60 percent went to sponsors, national Olympic committees, sports federations and other groups. About 215,000 were sold in Italy, nearly half of those in Turin and surrounding areas.

“There still are tickets for pretty much everything,” said Giorgio Lauretta, the head of ticketing for the Games’ organizing committee. “I’m not worried about the fact that we still have to reach our goal [of about 850,000]. Up until the last day of the Games, people will buy tickets.”

Still, some athletes are worried.

“It’s a real shame that people aren’t talking about the Olympics enough,” said Giorgio Rocca, the host’s top hope for an Alpine skiing medal. “This event wasn’t promoted in the best way,” he told radio station RTL.

A publicity campaign costing about $8.5 million — one of the victims of budget cuts, according to the committee’s marketing coordinator, Alberto Acciari — hasn’t exactly resulted in chatter about the Olympics in cafes.

Organizers thought the torch relay would get Italians excited. When the relay began in Rome, national soccer team star Francesco Totti didn’t bother to show up as announced.

“If the Winter Olympics are in Norway, that’s all that will be talked about,” said Giuseppe Gattino, the committee’s head of media relations. “In Italy, it’s different. It’s a country where there’s a lot going on.”

Whether it’s because of the country’s focus on soccer, the lack of a homegrown star, a penchant for last-minute planning or Turin natives’ reputation for being reserved — all reasons cited by committee officials — there’s a decided lack of buzz up and down Italy’s boot.

In 2004, when Paris was merely a candidate for the 2012 Summer Games, the French capital was awash with banners and billboards touting the bid.

Why isn’t Turin similarly decorated now?

“This will make you smile,” Mr. Acciari said. “If you put them up early, they’ll get dirty.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it isn’t worried.

“During the Games, we are pretty confident that the city will be a festive city. … The venues are ready,” IOC Olympic Games executive director Gilbert Felli said in a telephone interview. “When you’ve got a big event like the Olympic Games, you always have a little concern at the bottom of your heart to be sure all the levels of preparation will fit together and the little details will meet expectations.”

With its 900,000 inhabitants, Turin is a far cry from the sort of sleepy hamlet that usually plays host to the Winter Games. There’s work afoot everywhere.

The main Olympic Village is linked to the rest of the city by a pedestrian bridge held up by a red arch. The bridge ends abruptly, a slab of concrete suspended in the air, going nowhere — yet.

Work still is under way at venues in the mountains. At the bobsled course in Cesana, metal stands for spectators await their plastic seats. Orange cannons are spraying artificial flakes in Sestriere, a skiing resort built in the 1930s.

The athletes’ village is filled with workers and surrounded by trucks. Asked when it will be finished, committee spokesman Giorgio Deiana laughed and said, “When it’s finished.”

Organizers found inspiration in the Summer Games in Athens two years ago.

“Today, I’m very relaxed. A year ago, I was much worse,” said Sandro Pertile, competition manager at the ski jumping venue in Pragelato. “Athens gives us a lot of confidence. They were in much worse shape, and they pulled it off. If they did it …”

Security is being handled by the Interior Ministry, which likens its preparations for the Olympics to those for Pope John Paul II’s funeral. Pairs of soldiers with guns at the ready and berets tilted just right eyeball visitors to venues in the city and mountains.

But committee president Valentino Castellani’s biggest concern is transportation.

“There will be a lot of things that don’t work the first day. It was that way everywhere, and I don’t see why we would be an exception. At Sydney. At Salt Lake City. Atlanta was a disaster, I’ve heard, though I wasn’t there,” said Mr. Castellani, a former mayor of Turin. “We’ll study how things go the first day. The second day will go better. And by the end, no one will remember that the first day there was any problem.”

Each winter, Turin invites artists to display works using light around the city. Jenny Holzer, an American, set up a projector that scrolls phrases in white capital letters on the back wall of the Palazzo Madama, which dominates the spectacular Piazza Castello.

One phrase reads, “La mancanza di carisma puo essere letale,” meaning, “Lack of charisma can be fatal.” By the look of things, that phrase might be a more fitting slogan for the Turin Games than the official “Passion lives here.”

If that includes a passion for the Olympics, it’s being suppressed right now.

Then again, as the vendor Gino pointed out, “There’s still time.”

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