Winter Games became a growth industry amid the snow and ice

It is 50 years since Italy last held a Winter Games, when Cortina d’Ampezzo, in 1956, showcased skiing’s first triple-crown winner in Austria’s Toni Sailer. The Winter Games remain the Olympic movement’s kid brother – at 2,500 athletes, they are but a fourth as big as the summer version – and still draw precious little attention in countries without strong winter sports traditions, not least Greece. Even so, old reputations are ebbing. With doping now endemic in sport, bid and judging scandals having tainted predecessor hosts Nagano and Salt Lake City and in an age of terrorism, they are no longer the «purer» version of the Olympics its boosters have often fancied them to be. Western athletes still dominate, although the Far East is fast catching up. Yet they offer enough thrills and speed to satisfy the most dedicated sports fiend and a fully rounded, if lower-key, Olympics experience. The imposing sponsors’ pavilion going up in central Solferino Square, alongside a spiffily high-tech tourism-and-Games-information center (the Atrium Citta and Pavilion 2006), is a reminder that the Winter Games, like their summer counterparts, are now very big business and a peerless platform for marketing visibility. The Olympic Partner (TOP) program gives Olympic sponsors exclusive worldwide marketing rights to both Summer and Winter Games. And individuals can’t beg, borrow or steal a hotel room from now until March much short of Genoa (to the southeast) or Milan, 90 minutes to the northeast by train, with most long since reserved by the organizers for the Olympic family. Unlike the symbolic return of the Summer Games in 1896 to Greece after 1,500 years, the Winter Games entered the Olympics calendar almost through the back door. In the formative years a few winter sports, like figure skating and ice hockey, were actually competed at Summer Games, the former starting in London in 1908. Despite the growth of winter holidaying, the International Olympic Committee under Pierre de Coubertin long resisted sanctioning snow and ice sports, then dominated by the separate Nordic Games. Chamonix, in France, held the first International Winter Sports Week in 1924 under loose IOC auspices, as a prelude to the Paris Summer Games later that year. They were a hit, labeled the first Olympic Winter Games in retrospect and followed up at St Moritz in 1928 and, in 1932, Lake Placid in upstate New York. After early attempts to pair winter and summer competitions to the same country (ending at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany in 1936, which like that year’s Berlin Olympics were marred by racial incidents) they were decoupled from the single-country principle, and later, via a 1986 change in the Olympic Charter, from the normal four-year cycle. The Games were then staggered at two-year intervals, starting at 1994 in Lillehammer in Norway, bringing a one-off chance for extra Olympic fame to athletes then in their prime. There are now 15 recognized disciplines and 84 medal events. Cross-country (Nordic) skiing, ice hockey, bobsleigh racing and figure skating have appeared from the outset, while Alpine skiing was introduced in 1936. Some sports have come under criticism as primarily artistic (ice dancing), others for being mainly recreational (curling) or too youth-oriented (freestyle skiing). Curling and snowboarding were added as medal sports in 1998 in the search for greater variety and a youthful edge. Hosting any Games is a challenge, and Winter Games hosts face additional problems of access to distant mountain venues and fickle weather. Many Winter Games (Lake Placid in 1932 and 1980, Innsbruck in 1976, Cortina in 1956) have suffered snow shortages beforehand, while St Moritz actually had to cancel races due to warm weather. Ironically Nagano, the southernmost city ever to hold them, had too much of the white stuff. The opening and closing ceremonies and skating events will take place in Turin itself, with skiing in the Alps to the west, at Pragelato, Cesana and Sestriere, and Bardonecchia for snowboarding. The mountains are not easy to access; Sestriere (which will have its own Olympic Village, as will Turin and Bardonecchia) is a 90-minute train ride away to Oulx, followed by a 45-minute bus ride – not counting connections. The narrow road link is no better and promises Games-time bottlenecks. But heavy early-season snowfall made for some sublime vistas as well as relieved organizers.

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