Passion launched in Turin

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TURIN, Italy -- Passion, pageantry and Pavarotti. All three were present in grand scale last night as the XX Winter Olympics began with a sometimes majestic, sometimes whimsical opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium.

It even featured an upset.

Amid a 2 1/2 -hour show highlighted by in-line skaters wearing futuristic helmets that shot flames 6 feet into the air, fake cows on rollers, dancing trees, costumes by Giorgio Armani, dancers from Milan's La Scala opera house and the incomparable Luciano Pavarotti, Stefania Belmondo, a surprise choice, was the final torchbearer.

A five-time Olympian from a nearby Alpine village who won the last of her nine cross-country skiing medals in 2002, Belmondo completed her short run without incident, unlike the misstep of Guido Caroli, who was the final torchbearer the last time the Winter Olympics came to Italy, 50 years ago in Cortina D'Ampezzo. Caroli fell, though he didn't allow the torch to go out and eventually reached the cauldron.

Belmondo, who began skiing at age 3 after her father made her a pair of red skis, ignited a ring of fire that spread around a piazza created on the stadium surface and spread to a 20-story cauldron, the tallest in Olympic history.

The opening ceremony, before a capacity crowd of 35,000 and a worldwide television audience estimated at 2 billion, was named "Rhythm, Passion and Speed." Producer Marco Balich, better known as a rock promoter, said he wanted the program to reflect "the passionate way Italians approach life ... the way they drive, the way they eat, the way they dress."

To advance that theme, the perfect final torchbearer would have been former Italian alpine skier Alberto Tomba, who boldly predicted he would be selected. He won five medals in three Olympics, yet was equally known as a playboy whose wealthy merchant father rewarded him for his first gold medal in 1988 by buying him a red Ferrari.

Asked once if he altered his training for the Olympics, Tomba said, "I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m. In the Olympic village, I will live it up with five women until 3 a.m."

That apparently was not the image that Games organizers wanted to project during the opening ceremony when they inserted a theme of celebrating women, making Belmondo a more appropriate choice for the night's most memorable moment. Tomba carried the torch into the stadium before handing it off, starting a relay of former athletes before it reached Belmondo.

Eight famous women, including actresses Sophia Loren and Susan Sarandon, Chilean author Isabel Allende, Cambodian human rights activist Somaly Mam and Kenyan Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathi, carried the Olympic flag into the stadium moments before the torch arrived.

Coincidentally, half of the delegations from the 80 countries participating in the Games were led into the stadium by women flag bearers. Those included the three largest flags - the U.S. banner carried by speed skater Chris Witty, the Canadian by hockey player Danielle Goyette and the Italian by figure skater Carolina Kostner.

For the first time, China had a woman flag bearer, short track speed skater Yang Yang (A); she carries the (A) at the end of her name to distinguish herself from former teammate Yang Yang (S).

A total of 2,630 athletes have entered the Olympics, though many chose not to participate in the opening ceremony so they can rest for competition in 15 sports beginning today in the city of Turin, the capital of the Piedmont Region, and in the Italian Alps.

U.S. athletes, who number more than 200, marched into the stadium wearing red or blue berets, blue pants and white parkas.

They voted Thursday for Witty to carry their flag, not only because she is a five-time Olympian - having competed once in the Summer Games as a cyclist - but also to give her a platform to speak on behalf of the Good Touch/Bad Touch program to aid sexually abused children.

Witty, 30, a native of West Allis, Wis., was a victim of sexual abuse between the ages of 4 and 11 by a neighbor but didn't speak out about it until two years ago.

Jacques Rogge, International Olympic Committee president, used a portion of his speech to plead for world peace, imploring athletes to overcome "national, political, religious and language barriers. You can show us a world we all long for."

His idealism was matched by that of Yoko Ono, who performed a reading dedicated to the mostly symbolic Olympic truce, followed by Peter Gabriel singing "Imagine," written by Ono's late husband, John Lennon.

But reality intruded with the entrance into the stadium of the Danish team, which was accompanied by three security guards. Security officials have expressed concern because of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad that originally appeared in Denmark and have offended Muslims.

Security also was evident around first lady Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who sat in the same row, on each side of one of the Bush daughters, Barbara.

For the most part, however, the opening ceremony focused on frivolity.

"Passion Lives Here" is the slogan of the Games, but, it wasn't until Thursday, when the torch approached the city limits, that enthusiasm was noticeable.

Except for banners around the city promoting the passion, there has been little evidence that one of the world's largest sporting and cultural extravaganzas was approaching in the industrial city of 900,000. Tickets sales have been disappointing. As late as 24 hours before the opening ceremony, the organizing committee's official Web site advertised that tickets were available for that event, which is traditionally sold out months in advance.

The malaise seemed to lift about the same time as the haze. The sun was shining yesterday, temperatures were in the 40s, the snowcapped Alps were more than just a rumor and the city began to wake up to the Olympics.

"This was really a special night for Torino," said Federico Andorrino, a college student. "Everything about the ceremony made us proud. It was fun."

That was the producer's goal.

Balich even defended the disco music that served as background music for the Parade of Nations against critics who thought it struck a false chord.

Balich acknowledged that the choice of music was "very debated."

But, he said, "The music of the '70s and '80s is party music. We wanted to make a fun party. We wanted the athletes to have fun."

Some certainly did.

"This was amazing," U.S. short track speed skater Anthony Lobello said. "This was more than I ever imagined the opening ceremony to be. It's greater than portrayed on television."

randy.harvey@baltsun.com

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