Turin shrugs off a shroud of doubt

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The Independent Online

In a year and a week from now the world's élite snowmen and women will assemble here on skis and skates for the 20th Winter Olympic Games.

In a year and a week from now the world's élite snowmen and women will assemble here on skis and skates for the 20th Winter Olympic Games. Already these have been labelled Athens on Ice - not just because Turin believes it is headed for the same stunning triumph as the last Summer Games but because at first glance it appears to be in the same worrying state of unreadiness as the Greek capital was at a similar stage.

Of course, Athens made it. Just. But will this Italian job be finished on time? "Of course," smiles the city's engaging mayor, the 56-year-old Sergio Chiamparino. "Our pride is at stake. We know a successful Olympics are necessary to preserve our future as a major economic force and tourist attraction."

He insists that mountains have been made out of the molehills of misfortune that have bedevilled the construction of several Olympic projects. It has been an uphill struggle but now, he says, it is downhill all the way - although there are still some hazardous slalom gates to be negotiated, as the IOC will discover when they meet here next month.

One of these comes on Friday with the anticipated confirmation that the Italian government - legally barred from giving money directly - have solved a cashflow problem for Toroc, the organising committee, by bailing them out via a funding group owned by the treasury. This will cover a $250m shortfall in the overall budget of $1.76bn, and follows an investigation during which the Italian police examined allegations of financial irregularities over highway improvements and raided the committee's offices.

Subsequently, the government installed their sports minister, Mario Pescante, to supervise the Games operation. The committee president, Valentino Castellani, complaining that his dignity had been affronted, resigned - but then changed his mind and now proclaims himself "very satisfied with the situation". He adds: "Almost all the venues in the mountains are ready and so are some in the city."

Yet several sites still have a skeletal look about them as they rise from the rubble, à la Athens. Castellani shrugs: "Perhaps a little bit we are also people of the last minute. But hopefully not the same as Athens."

Turin's problems have been as much physical as fiscal. Up in the mountains towards the resort of Sestriere, along what is called the Milky Way, the original bobsleigh run had to be moved and suffered a year's delay when diggers struck a seam of asbestos. But the new run recently underwent a successful test event.

Back in Turin itself, where all the skating events will be held, the site where they are building the main 15,000-seater hockey arena until a couple of months ago looked as if a bomb had hit it. Indeed, two had. A couple of unexploded bombs, dropped by the Americans in the Second World War, were discovered during excavations.

The curvaceous figure-skating arena, the Palavela, was completed in less than a year, so the omens are good - though spectators at last week's European Championships complained of uncomfortable seating, plus a lack of toilet facilities and food outlets. Moreover, the two-day demonstration by Fiat workers, who have seen 60,000 jobs disappear, forced road closures which meant that skaters and fans had to walk more than a mile to the venue. Castellani says: "There is room for improvement for everything."

So will it be all right on the night of Friday 10 February 2006, when the Games will open in the 35,000-seater Olympic Stadium built by Mussolini in 1933 and now being ripped apart and renovated? John Charles once trod its turf in the shirt of Juventus, who then shared the ground with Torino. After the Games it will be gifted to the Serie B club on a 99-year lease. The mayor is a "Toro" fan.

Turin, with a population of 900,000, is the largest city to host the Winter Olympics. Hitherto it has been best known for football, food and Fiat, but is now undergoing an image makeover, with the Games as a springboard for a renaissance that it is hoped will cure the current economic ills.

It was the scandals in Turin's predecessor as a Winter Games host, Salt Lake City, which had changed the face of the entire Olympic movement. Turin promises these Games will be sleaze-free. Security, inevitably, will be costly, but the mayor says: "It will not be our biggest expenditure. The Winter Games are not like the Summer Games - and this is not America. We do not anticipate any trouble, but we have our plans in place."

So will Turin make it? "Yes," says the IOC's chief progress-chaser, Jean-Claude Killy, who should know. And even he admits to being "just a little tense". Turin may be off the slippery slope, but it still has to get its skates on.