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Curtain's up for Passion play Turin not quite ready to welcome the world, but Italians say the show will go on

The Olympic torch was scheduled to make its way through this city of 900,000 today and, assuming some protester doesn't chuck it into the Po River, it should be burning when opening ceremonies begin Friday evening in the new Stadio Olimpico.

At least that was the plan Wednesday. Come Friday? We'll see.

Italy was scrambling in the days leading up to the 2006 Winter Games, and there were growing concerns about its preparation. Olympic Stadium has been off limits because local organizers wanted to keep details of opening ceremonies a secret, but there was no hiding the fact that Turin wasn't quite ready for the world.

In 2002, there were fears Salt Lake City wouldn't pass the test, but everything ran smoothly over the two-plus weeks. Italy had four years to pull the Olympics together, but it appears it spent three years, 11 months and three weeks procrastinating. In keeping with tradition, athletes wasted no time moaning about the conditions.

"I am very princessy as far as travel is concerned," three-time U.S. figure skating champion Johnny Weir said. "It's a little dusty, very undecorated, the beds aren't very soft, but I'm enjoying it. I'm roughing it. It would be the same going out in the woods [and] camping."

Turin's bedrooms looked clean, but its clothes were balled under the bed while a million visitors waited outside the door. Olympic-related banners covered construction sites around town, including the medals plaza.

Local organizers were frantically pushing to make sure telephone and power lines, temperamental earlier this week, were working throughout athletic and media villages.

Bushes and plants used to dress up an ice rink were unloaded late Monday night, but the landscaping was finished by Tuesday morning. The city hired hundreds of out-of-town bus drivers who were learning their way around town while transportation officials retooled driving routes. It had the makings of a logistical nightmare, feeding fears about security.

"With any Games, the last few days are the most difficult ones," said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. "There are still little issues to be resolved, but there are a couple of days to go until the opening ceremony."

The torch has gone out three times during its journey in Italy. Two weeks ago, track star Eleanora Berlanda had it wrestled from her hands by protesters who called themselves "the disobedient ones." Dozens of demonstrations have been held since December with gripes ranging from environmental issues to Coca-Cola's role as a sponsor.

Who knows? Maybe they were pro-Pepsi.

The world might be worried, but the Italians were hardly sweating. They're convinced everything will be satisfactory starting Friday and concluding Feb. 26 with the men's gold medal hockey game. How the city fares will be determined in the coming weeks, but you can count on several good story lines.

Sasha Cohen could be in the way of Michelle Kwan's elusive gold medal in women's figure skating. Western New York's granddaughter, Kimmie Meissner, is hoping to beat both the way Sarah Hughes did in 2002.

Jeremy Bloom is looking for a medal in men's moguls, his last event before he prepares for the NFL Combine. Orchard Park's Travis Mayer won silver in that event four years ago. Mayer is one of several Western New Yorkers competing in the Games.

The X Games will continue to have an influence. Free spirited skateboarder Shaun White, popular with today's youth, is favored to win gold in men's halfpipe. He'll be competing against Danny Kass, who is popular with reporters. Kass breathed life into Salt Lake City when he announced four years ago he was there "for the beer and the chicks."

Former in-liner Chad Hedrick is hoping to tie Eric Heiden with five gold medals in speed skating. Alpine skier Bode Miller is certain to make news, win or lose. Men's and women's hockey teams will be gunning for Canada.

Short track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno returns to add to the gold he won in the 1,500 meters in Utah.

All told, the Winter Games will include seven sports, 15 different disciplines, about 2,600 athletes, 650 judges and 1 million spectators. They hope. Turin has spent some $3.4 billion on the Games, 18 percent over its original budget, sprucing up the city and building the required venues.

"It's beautiful," U.S. speed skater Derek Parra said of the Oval Lingotto. "The Italians did a great job. A little late, maybe. They could have finished it a little earlier. The ice is changing by the day, and it's changing well. It will be great for racing."

The identity of the final torchbearer was being kept secret, but widespread speculation had three-time Alpine skiing gold medalist Alberto Tomba lighting the cauldron. The Italian heartthrob is a three-time Olympian who has won more Olympic medals (five) than any male ever and one of the country's few international sports heroes.

He also personifies Turin's motto for the Olympics: The Passion Lives Here.

The slogan seemed to fit Italy like a Versace suit. The country's passion is apparent everywhere, except perhaps at the box office. It oozes from its history, arts, architecture and food. Italy is known for its romance, but its passion for the Olympics is lacking at best.

About 30 percent of the tickets remained unsold earlier this week, but it hardly roused the locals. Unlike the United States and many other countries, Italians don't typically purchase tickets for sporting events months in advance. The plan is to load buses with children to fill arenas.

"They work a lot, they work hard the last months in Torino," Tomba said Tuesday. "Also in Athens (in 2004), there was a problem before the opening. But that is life. In three days time, it is the opening ceremony. Let's go for two weeks."

The weather could have a major impact on whether the Turin Games are a success. Temperatures have been in the high 30s and low 40s, which prompted officials to deliver truckloads of snow to the mountains to help support snow-making machines. There also were complaints about soft ice, which officials have attempted to address.

On Monday, Italian ski jumpers Stefano Chiapolino and Marco Beltrame were eliminated from competition after suffering injuries that were blamed on the conditions. Beltrame was rushed to the hospital after suffering a ruptured spleen. Chiapolino took a spill and broke his nose.

"We're really upset," said Sebastian Colloredo, Italy's top ski jumper. "They were here for a test to choose who should take part in the Olympics. It was horrible. It was the fault of the slopes."

The passion lives.


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