Opener’s finale heating up

TURIN – Skiing great Alberto Tomba remains the odds-on favorite, but regional star Stefania Belmondo is gaining steam in her quest to light the flame at the Turin Games opening ceremony on February 10. A retired two-time Olympic champion in cross-country skiing, Belmondo makes no secret of her wishes. «I’m dying to be the last torchbearer,» she said. In September, Belmondo abandoned a comeback attempt to spend more time with her two children. She was born in Vinadio outside Turin and would be a popular choice among locals. Lighting the flame could make up for her emotional decision to withdraw from competition. «It would be a great honor as well as an incredible emotion, almost like winning a medal,» said Belmondo, who also won four world championship golds. Organizing committee chief Valentino Castellani was coy about who ultimately will have the honor. «We are contacting people and are making progress,» he said. «Only a few of us know, very few, and we will not reveal who it is before the appropriate time.» Names of a few other famous Italians have been floated around as possibilities, such as motorcycling champion Valentino Rossi – Italy’s most popular sports star – but they lack a direct connection to winter sports. Even actor-director Roberto Benigni was mentioned as a long shot recently in Turin daily La Stampa. Retired soccer player Roberto Baggio also was listed. Baggio would not be the first soccer star to light the flame at the Winter Olympics. Frenchman Michel Platini had the honors at the 1992 Albertville Games. Americans will take part in the torch relay in Florence on December 14 when Iowa native Brandon Routh, star of the upcoming «Superman Returns,» relays to New York Yankees manager Joe Torre. Kostner cousins Figure skater Carolina Kostner will follow in the footsteps of her older cousin, Isolde Kostner, when she carries the Italian flag at the opening ceremony in Turin. Downhill skier Isolde Kostner had the honor in the parade of nations at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. A first-time Olympian, Carolina Kostner turns 19 two days before the Feb. 10 ceremony. «It’s the dream of a lifetime,» Carolina Kostner said. «Just competing in the Olympics is still a dream for me. My cousin carried the flag with honor. She’s my idol and I promise you I will carry the flag with as much enthusiasm and honor as she did.» Carolina Kostner’s best result was her bronze medal at the world championships in Moscow earlier this year. «I think it’s a great choice. A choice that looks forward,» Castellani said. «It puts a lot of pressure on her, but it’s also a great tribute to young people. Of course it’s a big responsibility we’re giving this girl. It will depend on her maturity to know how to handle it in the best manner.» Carolina and the 30-year-old Isolde are second cousins. Carolina’s father, Erwin Kostner, was a top hockey player and is now a coach. Isolde Kostner followed her flag-bearing experience by winning a silver medal in downhill, having already won two bronzes at Lillehammer in 1994. She will retire at the end of this season. «If it weren’t for Turin I may have already quit, but a home Olympics deserves consideration,» she said. Italy also has chosen a teenager to carry its flag at the opening of the March 10-19 Paralympics. Melanie Corradini, a 17-year-old skier missing most of her left arm, will be competing in her first Olympiad. Stadium fight Turin’s two soccer clubs are quarreling over the right to play in the newly renovated Olympic stadium after the Turin Games. The renovation was done with the idea that the Torino team would use the stadium beginning next season. But Juventus wants to use it, too. Juventus would like to play the next season or two in the remodeled stadium while its Stadio Delle Alpi undergoes its own renovation. «When work begins at Delle Alpi in May that means we will play here, we’ve already made a request to that effect,» the club’s chairman, Antonio Giraudo, said. Torino President Urbano Cairo said he was open to sharing the stadium – but only for one season. «And they would have to pay rent, because this is our structure,» he added. Making ice Organizers still have not chosen a company to put in place new ice-making equipment in the secondary hockey arena after the old facilities failed during an Olympic test event last month. «We expect to choose between two companies for the new compressors this week,» said Jukka Pekka Vuorinen, the Finn who is hockey competition manager for organizing committee TOROC. Teams taking part in a test tournament last month complained of soft ice, and the decision was made to tear up the old equipment and start anew. Vuorinen said he thinks the transition will be complete by the end of December, and more test games could be held in January. The temporary Torino Esposizioni arena will host at least 25 games of the hockey competition. The other 30-plus games will be held at the new Palasport Olimpico.