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THE BALTIMORE SUN

TURIN, Italy -- Colorful banners throughout this industrial city in northwest Italy display the slogan for the 20th Winter Olympics, "Passion Lives Here." Yet there is little evidence in most of the city of passion for anything other than the things that normally excite people here - coffee, chocolate and soccer.

"We have a few more strangers in the restaurant," Antonella Rota, a waitress at the three-star Antiche Sera, said last night, less than 24 hours before tonight's opening ceremony. "But there is really nothing else in this neighborhood to show that the Olympics are here."

Christopher Clarey, an American journalist for the International Herald Tribune who has rented an apartment in the central city, near the headquarters for NBC, said the Olympics are inescapable in his neighborhood.

"The passion lives there," he said, "but I really don't notice it anywhere else in the city."

But perhaps it is not those who are in Turin now that city officials hope to impress.

For decades, Turin has served as one of Italy's foremost industrial centers while more appealing and historic cities such as Rome, Milan, Florence and Venice have attracted most of the international tourists.

Today, with carmaker Fiat, the company that drove the city's economy, having trimmed operations and moved to the suburbs, Turin is attempting to transform itself into a winter tourist destination, taking advantage of its location at the foot of the Italian Alps.

The city's efforts will receive their largest boost - and test - with the staging of the Olympic Winter Games, starting tonight with the opening ceremony before a capacity crowd of 35,000 at the Olympic Stadium and a worldwide television audience.

Italian opera star Luciano Pavarotti will perform his signature "Nessun Dorma" - Vincero! Vincero! ("I will win! I will win!"). The line from Puccini's Turandot could be adopted as the theme over 16 days of competition in 15 sports for approximately 2,550 athletes from 85 countries.

The United States is sending the most athletes, with more than 200 expected to compete, and, if most projections are accurate, will finish near the top of the medal standings with a total near its record of 34 from four years ago in Salt Lake City.

That no doubt would be good for NBC, which, along with affiliated networks MSNBC, CNBC and USA, is televising 416 hours from Italy and, like the athletes, is preparing for competition. Fox has programmed five nights of American Idol during the February sweeps period against NBC's Olympic coverage from Turin, or, as it will be called on the network, Torino.

NBC's sports chairman, Dick Ebersol, decided to go with the city's name in Italian over the Anglicized version because, he said, Torino sounds more aesthetically pleasing. Yet, the city, no matter what it is called, is anything but. Even the natural beauty of the snowcapped Alps is often obscured during winter by smog.

"We are not pizza and spaghetti," said Marco DiSio, 27, a Turin native. "We are not Rome, Florence, Venice or Milan. We are a good city, but, for tourists, we are boring. We are known for Fiat, Juventus [a soccer club] and nothing else."

He didn't mention the Shroud of Turin, which many believe to be Jesus' burial cloth, but that will not be on display until 2025.

The U.S. city that Turin is most often compared to is Detroit. When the national automobile industry thrived, so did Turin. Now that it seems there are almost as many Toyotas and Nissans on the highways as Fiats and Lancias, the downtown is decaying.

The city is combating that with numerous public works projects, many of which have yet to be finished, because Olympic venues, which have been completed, took precedence. Mayor Sergio Chiamparino told the Los Angeles Times recently that the cranes dotting the sky over the city are a positive sign, reflecting the "image of a city in transformation."

The International Olympic Committee may or may not have bought into that vision when it voted overwhelmingly in 1999 for Turin over Sion, Switzerland, to organize the Winter Games. Certainly, the selection of Turin, with a population according to the 2004 census of 908,000 (1.7 million in the metropolitan area), was consistent with the IOC's recent trend of awarding the Winter Olympics to larger cities such as Calgary, Alberta, in 1988 and Salt Lake City in 2002. Vancouver, British Columbia, will play host in 2010. The only other time Italy organized the Winter Games was in the ski resort of Cortina D'Ampezzo in 1956.

Politics also played a role in the voting. Having awarded the 2004 Summer Olympics two years earlier to Athens over Rome, some IOC members believed they owed Italy a favor.

Then there were the remarks at the height of the Salt Lake City bribery scandal in 1998 by longtime Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler, the leading campaigner for Sion, that some of his colleagues still had their hands out. The backlash, as reported in the news media after the vote a year later, sent Sion crashing to defeat.

The question then, which some say has not been adequately answered seven years later, is how much Italians other than those on Turin's bid committee wanted the Games.

Not until Wednesday did the Italian government agree to cover $96 million in cost overruns on the organizing committee's $1.4 billion operating budget. The government also resisted until recently IOC lobbying efforts to suspend during the Games the country's drug laws that impose criminal charges against athletes who test positive for performance-enhancing substances such as steroids while competing.

Ticket sales also have been slow. Though organizing committee officials warned that the typical Italian sports fan usually buys late, it wasn't until last week that they were able to confidently predict that they would meet their goal of selling 850,000 tickets, 80 percent of those available. By comparison, Salt Lake City organizers sold 1.7 million tickets, or 95 percent.

As of yesterday, hotel rooms within an hour of the city were available.

Organizers say they have only two overriding concerns.

One is security, which is being handled by the federal government. The torch relay, which arrived in Turin yesterday, was diverted twice within the past week because of protests, most having to do with economic and environmental issues.

Security officials say they also are on heightened alert because of Muslim riots around the world after cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad were published in European newspapers.

About 10,000 police officers and soldiers have been commissioned to secure venues. NATO will be patrolling the region with two AWACS surveillance planes.

The other concern is winter.

There hasn't been enough of it, with only two days of snow in the mountains since New Year's Eve. Officials say, however, that they will be able to make enough snow for the alpine competitions.

Yet, organizers said they expect the Games to be an unqualified success, a sentiment echoed by IOC President Jacques Rogge.

DiSio, despite his cynicism, didn't disagree.

"Those of us who live here have been through the financial problems, the political fights, the construction, the traffic," he said. "We are tired.

"But for the next two weeks, we're going to enjoy it. It's going to be a party."

randy.harvey@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

THE GAMES AT A GLANCE

OPENING CEREMONY Site -- Olympic Stadium Time -- 8 tonight TV -- Chs. 11, 4

COMPETITION Day 1, tomorrow Events -- Ice hockey, speed skating, figure skating pairs, ski jumping, nordic combined, biathlon, luge, freestyle moguls skiing

KIMMIE WATCH You might catch a glimpse of Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air, Maryland's only Olympian, during the parade of athletes tonight. Then, the 16-year-old will be competing in figure skating beginning Feb. 21. The ladies' short program is that night and their free-skating competition is Feb. 23.

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