"Neve Inferno" screamed the Torino Cronaca's January 28 headline, this neve referring to the heavy snow that had paralyzed northwestern Italy's Piedmont region just 12 days before the start of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin. And questions were being asked about the region's capacity to pull off a successful Games if a foot of snow was able to inflict such chaos. The Torino Cronaca's lead story reported, "Traffico in tilt, scule chiuse, la citta' Olimpica cominica male."
Traffic jammed, schools closed, the Olympic city starts badly.
Stalled on the interstate for over two hours and barely able to make progress up into the main valley, our media group abandoned its attempt to get a sneak preview of the Olympic venues in the mountains west of Turin. Disappointed, we wondered what the chaos might look like if another storm hits when one million spectators and the world's media are on the ground.
Ironically, I'd asked Francesca Mei of the Turin Olympics Regional Organizing Committee the day before about the well-reported lack of snow at skiing and snowboarding venues like Bardonecchia and Sestriere. Snow was being made around the clock to prep the slopes, so "the only problem could be for television reasons," she smiled. NBC will now get their snowy Alpine panoramas and the venues their much-needed snow, but Turin's transport system also got a shot in the arm for its chaotic dress rehearsal.
Yet despite these pre-Games headaches, things will be ready for the opening ceremonies on February 10. Better still, Turin promises to be a richly rewarding venue for a number of fascinating reasons that go beyond seeing Bode Miller burning up the piste or Michelle Kwan finally picking up her long-awaited gold.
Culturally, this northern home of Italy's auto- and textile-manufacturing industries is nothing like the flamboyant, hot-blooded provinces in the south. More reserved and conservative, it seems the locals, the Torinese, have been something of a hard sell when it comes to the joys of hosting one of the world's biggest sporting events. "Buja né" is the Piedmontese phrase used by Christian Mezerra, a spokesman for the city's gabled Olympic Pavilion (officially named the Torino Atrium), to describe the outlook of his fellow citizens. It means "no budging."
And they may have good reason for being circumspect about the approaching Olympic juggernaut, having endured years of transport headaches, political wrangling, and a costly $2.5-billion reconfiguration of their entire city in the run-up to the quadrennial snow- and ice-fest. Even on the day of the storm, with local buses running behind schedule all over the city, already overwrought Torinese on one city bus were informed halfway through its route that it was cancelled for snow reasonsand because the road had been shut to complete last-minute Olympic preparations.
Disgruntled commuters aside, however, plans are falling into place to deal with the roadshow that's about to roll into town. Some 2,000 taxis will be deployed to roam the streets, up from a fleet of only several hundred; some 37 miles of Olympic travel lanes will be sectioned off to ease the flow of shuttles and official transport; and certain facilities around the city have been rigged with the motherlode of cabling to feed the media's need for instant Internet access.
No doubt, there are wrinkles that still need ironing, but officials will tell you that this was the same for Athens, Salt Lake, and most, if not all, Olympic host cities. One Olympics spokesperson told ESPN that Turin's state of readiness was akin to a party host straightening his necktie before the guests arrive, though in some cases it may be that most unfinished business will just be hidden.
A City on the Rebound
It's also true that the blueprint for this Olympics has always been about more than just putting on a good show. Nothing short of a 21st-century renaissance, Turin's tired industrial footprint has been transformed by a bold project of urban revitalization. The Olympics play an integral part in this reinvention, though the big show isn't intended to be the final word. Turin's industrial arteries and factories, the legacy of its place as the home of Italy's Fiat auto-making industry, stood as "sad ornaments to what the city once was, not what it is and will be," says Torino Atrium's Christian Mezerra. The Olympics will "upgrade the city to a higher level," he enthuses, one that will attract tourists, investors, and the world's big cultural, sporting, and business events. The Olympics, organizers hope, will be the springboard to a bright new future for Turin.
The central tenet of Turin's successful Olympics bid was, in fact, predicated around construction and facilities that would meld into a cityscape of medieval, Baroque, and Belle Époque architecture. All development, bar speed skating's new Oval Lingotto, reuses existing spaces and will be repurposed once the five-ring circus leaves town. The units in the athletes' Olympic Village will be sold off as condos, Torino soccer club will move into the Olympic Stadium, the Medals Plaza and sponsors' Olympic Pavilion will melt away, as if unworthy to offset the beauty of the city's elegant piazzas and Baroque arcades for any significant length of time. The 2006 Winter Olympics will put Turin on the map as a modern, dynamic city, but life after the Olympics is what many civic leadersand no doubt a contingent of Olympics-weary Torineseare really dreaming about.
Tourism will play a big part in this future, and Turin is certainly something of a diamond in the rough, often overlooked for the international fashion repute of Milan two hours east or the historic draw of Genoa on the Mediterranean coast several hours southeast of Turin. The city's tourism board estimates some 850,000 visitors for 2006, while Giuliana Manaca, Regione Piemonte's sports and tourism minister, targets a doubling of tourism revenue from 1.5 percent to 3 percent of overall GDP as a result of the Games.
Host It and They Will Come
"It's a beautiful city with more than 2,000 years of history," notes Christian Mezerra. And he's right, Turin does have its beauty, even if it's not as visually arresting as, say, Rome or Florence. Elegant arcades march down the stately Piazza Vittorio Veneta toward the Po River and hills beyond, ornate palaces and apartments of Savoy royalty greet you at near every turn, and the 2,000-year-old shoulders of the original Roman city gate stand as an almost forgotten reminder of how long this city has lived.
But ultimately it's the people, fiercely proud of their region, their cuisine, and their part in the birth of the modern Italian republic, who'll be Turin's best ambassadors. Rarely exuberant yet quietly generous, they exude a sincerity that tells you they're happy you're discovering what they've known all along.
And as for the Olympics? Sure, the Torinese have taken their own sweet time putting on their party facebut this is Italy, remember, and there's always time.
On the same evening that sub-zero temps and a frigid weather front was about to unleash il neve and the chaos of January 28, we came across long lines of huddled locals queuing under the porticos of Piazza San Carlo and Piazza Castello. What were they waiting for? our guide asked one middle-aged man. Tickets to the nightly medal ceremonies and concerts at the still-unfinished Medals Plaza on Piazza Castello. Thousands of people were waiting patiently in the numbing cold, some for as long as eight hours, to get their hands on that once-in-a-lifetime Olympic memory. And when people finally walked out into the cold evening air with their tickets, a cheer from the crowd would ring out across the piazza in celebration.
Finally, it seems, the Torinese are now ready to party with the world.