Turin turns out for the Winter Olympics with crowds, banners, big screens and fireworks

TURIN – Patches of snow dotted the bare hillsides east of Milan as the half-empty Alitalia jet circled for landing in the wintry haze hanging over the Italian north like a shroud. Arrival brought the pleasant prospect of a few days in the land of «pronto» and of escaping hypertalkative neighbors on the plane. Turin was still a long way off, but at least I was in the right country. Visitors to Milan’s Malpensa Airport these days aren’t exactly overwhelmed with evidence of Italy’s ongoing Olympics, save for a couple of guards with sniffer dogs wandering through the luggage area and the odd poster. It’s a similar tale in the city center. In the cavernous but impressive, Mussolini-era railway station, where the train ticket lines remain infuriatingly long and pigeons still coo in the eaves high above, the Games information booth was unmanned. This heavily graffitied, political-postered city is readying for an electoral campaign, which means Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s pearly whites gleaming from every street corner. City on display But that’s not until April, whereas another set of competitions, the XXth Winter Olympics, are far more pressing these days. They are still a stifling two-hour train ride away, during which asking the question «What am I doing here?» seemed entirely sensible. Things perked up in after-dark Turin, though, where disembarking passengers were being serenaded by the Dizzy Miss Lizzy Jazz Band in Turin’s bustling, and more modern, station. New Orleans may have met its Waterloo, but its main export still shines. Turin has changed quite a bit since December. Muddied squares have reopened, buildings are adorned with colorful banners, streetlights are ablaze, information booths pop up everywhere. Crowds fill the streets, main squares have big screens showing hockey matches and luge runs and fireworks light up the early night sky. The Olympics are definitely on. Yet this fair-sized industrial city with its royal, Savoyard past is hardly being overwhelmed by the Games or by a sense of Olympic spirit, however that can even be defined. And anyone coming from Athens is bound, almost duty-bound, to compare what’s going on here with what transpired in the Greek capital in summer 2004. Street-level feeling While there’s clearly a nice street-level feeling, with smiling faces all about, the organizational comparisons are not altogether flattering for Turin. Signage, directions, and so on are far from clear; transport is hard to manage (even if you’re not heading to a competition), and volunteers seem thin on the ground, despite claims of 20,000 of them around. The nightly events at central Piazza Castello, which feature medal ceremonies and rock concerts splashed on huge screens, are closed off to non-ticket-holders by barricades and squadrons of bored carabinieri. The square holds up to 30,000 people, and rumor has it there’s not a single public toilet for them. Some ambitious construction projects clearly never got finished and are only half-covered. In terms of Games-time public services, Athens 2004 seems clearly to win any head-to-head competition. Yet Turin is also a city with enough going for it that it can be underwhelmed by the Games and still keep its character. A glitzy opening ceremony full of music, historical allegory and fireworks, followed by yet another Olympic men’s downhill race that produced a surprise winner and an elimination-round hockey game that ended with a score of 16-0 – the Winter Games always manage to be predictably unpredictable. It all seems smooth so far, but it’s still early going. As Salt Lake City in 2002 showed, the Games can’t really be lauded until all is said and done. Covering an Olympics is a challenging exercise at the best of times. They are everywhere and yet always somewhere else, a sort of virtual presence, with crowds of people always heading in directions other than where you happen to be. The Winter Games may be smaller, but the venues, like here in Turin, are widely spread out, in this case between the city and the Alps further west. Things got more complicated this time around as my single weekend to get ready for all this was disrupted by the flu. So, ill-prepared and just ill, with a nose running like Turin’s Po River, I’m heading into an interesting week. And then there’s the small question of being «official.» Life during Athens’s Games, with accreditation, was very busy, but at least it brought free access to competitions, access to information systems and scoresheets, access to press conferences and access to bad, if subsidized, food. Flitting among venues via a special bus system was a daily adventure. The city was a known quantity. Unfamiliarity factor Things here, with unaccredited status, are rather different. Apart from the unfamiliarity factor, attending any competition means paying out of pocket for tickets for seats in the nosebleed sections. Early-round curling, as I’ll see later this evening as a gentle introduction, is pretty reasonable, with tickets running 20 euros each. But figure skating will set you back 300 euros (if you can even find a ticket); for Alpine skiing, like the women’s downhill scheduled for today (Wednesday), forget it. The official Games information system is off-line and off-limits. In short, without accreditation you lack context before, during, and after competitions. It’s little use even paying lip service to expertise in such cases, even if it’s sort of liberating to start from tabula rasa and write on the fly. Yet there are compensations. The media center for non-accredited souls is a modern, quiet, centrally located delight, with a cinema-sized screen to watch the Games and organized excursions in case all the sport palls. Techie help is always close by. It’s another example of the Games being all around, yet in a virtual rather than genuine sense. As always, there’s no substitute for actually seeing a competition, if you can manage to sort out the access problem. And some of us had better get cracking on that score.

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