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Winter Games Begin Opening Ceremonies set stage for sports

The Winter Olympics officially began Friday evening in a country where history, style and art play a more prominent role in society than competition. Italy's goal in these Olympics is not about finishing atop the medals stand but sharing its vast resources of culture with countries from around the world.

Italy was intent on delivering a message befitting its values during the Opening Ceremonies in Stadio Olimpico, where fireworks added more flair than emotion during a show that lasted almost three hours. The slogan for these Games is "The Passion Lives," and Turin was intent on bringing its passion to life Friday night.

It was vastly different than the attitude the United States carried in 2002, when the Salt Lake City Olympics helped comfort a wounded nation still recovering from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Salt Lake City's motto was "Light the Fire Within," and American athletes responded with their best performance in the Winter Games.

"By combining modern and classical elements showing Italy's culture and history, the Torino 2006 Opening Ceremony was a fitting start for the Olympic Winter Games," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said. "Like those cheering in the stadium tonight, I'm sure the billions around the world who watched the ceremony will have marveled at the spectacle."

Italy might pride itself in history, art and style, but the next 16 days also will be about sports. Everything was on display in Olympic Stadium, a 35,000-seat open air facility that stands where a soccer stadium was built in 1933. The stadium effectively captured the essence of the Olympics, which brings countries together in the name of competition.

"You are at the heart of these Games, which were created for you," Rogge told the athletes. "Give these Games the magic that we all desire, not only through your performances but also, and above all, through your conduct. Athletes, you are role models. Your conduct will inspire and motivate future generations."

"This was amazing!" short track speedskater Anthony Lobello of Tallahassee, Fla., said in quotes released by the U.S. Olympic Committee. "This was more than I ever imagined the Opening Ceremonies to be. It's greater than portrayed on television."

Opening Ceremonies were watched by an estimated 2 billion television viewers around the world. They saw a terrific exhibition on a 33,000-square-foot stage, which transformed into an artistic showcase while incorporating pyrotechnics, dancing, skateboarding, auto racing and virtually all things Italy.

Three in-line skaters had torches burning from the tops of their helmets in a performance called the "Sparks of Passion." It symbolized rhythm, passion and speed that are common among Olympic athletes. Some 13 million people from seven European countries who live in the majestic Italian Alps were represented by nearly 1,000 performers at one time in the stage's mosh pit.

Sophia Loren and Susan Sarandon were among eight women who carried the Olympic flag into the stadium. Italian skier and two-time gold-medal winner Alberto Tomba carried the Olympic torch on the second-last leg before four-time Olympian and four-time gold medalist Stefania Belmondo lit the cauldron. They are two of Italy's most famous athletes.

First lady Laura Bush was among the people in attendance who were treated to a mixture of music from around the world, including James Brown's "I Feel Good." Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti performed his famous "Nessun Dorma" to conclude the ceremonies.

Chris Witty, who has won two gold medals in speed skating and competed in the 2000 Summer Games in cycling, carried the U.S. flag.

"Torino will be, for the next two weeks, the world capital of sports," said Valentino Castellani, president of the local organizing committee. "It is a challenge that has its origins in our ancient sports tradition."

Italy spent $3.4 billion on the Games with the idea that more tourists will visit Turin when traveling to Rome, Venice, Florence and beyond. This industrial city, known across Europe as the hub of Fiat, was working at various venues right up until the Opening Ceremonies were held downtown.

The United States contingent received a warm welcome from the crowd. The Americans would be thrilled if they matched the 34 medals they captured in 2002, including the silver medals by Western New Yorkers Travis Mayer in moguls skiing and Aaron Miller in men's hockey.

Ellicottville native Jillian Vogtli will compete today in women's moguls after finishing 18th in 2002.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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