Gold rush in the hills

Sestriÿre's preparations for next year's Winter Olympics are well underway. Stephen Wood checks up on progress in the Italian Alps and finds a world-class ski resort taking shape

If all goes to plan, the 2006 Winter Olympics will open in 58 weeks' time. The opening ceremony in Turin is planned for 8pm on 10 February; thereafter, sporting events will take place in the city (skating/ice hockey), across the eastern plain at Pinerolo (curling), and up in the Alps around the ski resort of Sestrière. Then everyone will troop back to Turin's Stadio Olimpico for the closing ceremony on 26 February.

If all goes to plan, the 2006 Winter Olympics will open in 58 weeks' time. The opening ceremony in Turin is planned for 8pm on 10 February; thereafter, sporting events will take place in the city (skating/ice hockey), across the eastern plain at Pinerolo (curling), and up in the Alps around the ski resort of Sestrière. Then everyone will troop back to Turin's Stadio Olimpico for the closing ceremony on 26 February.

Though starting on schedule is customary, the run-up to an Olympics rarely goes to plan. One of the more exciting races of a summer Games is to get the facilities finished on time. With a winter version, the competition for gold and silver - in the monetary sense - usually starts well before the first event.

The last Winter Olympics took place in Salt Lake City in 2002. And, as you may recall, its most newsworthy event was the winning strategy of the Games' organisers, two of whom were found to have paid out over $1m to members of the committee that decided where they would be staged.

Four years earlier, the accounts for the Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan, revealed overspending on a truly Olympian scale. The cost of Nagano was 28 times that of the previous event in Lillehammer, Norway; and, later, when questions were asked about the money, evidence of where it had gone proved elusive.

One section of an early brochure produced for the 2006 Games suggests that the Turin organising committee, TOROC, lacks imagination about possible mishaps: it is headed "Let's get ready for the hottest winter of the century". But it wasn't the unexpected that happened in November; rather, it was the usual problem with cash. In that month Italian police visited the offices of Agenzia Torino 2006, the company responsible for creating the Olympic infrastructure, in an investigation into alleged bid-fixing for highway improvements. Soon afterwards it was reported that police had also raided the offices of TOROC, prompted by the revelation of an estimated €186m (£134m) shortfall in the group's funds.

Not by coincidence, November also saw the (left-wing) former mayor of Turin, Valentino Castellani, quit as president of TOROC only to withdraw his resignation. These events followed the (right-wing) Italian government's decision to send in its own man to watch TOROC's finances.

At the beginning of last month it was business as usual in Rome, with national affairs lurching from crisis (corruption) to crisis (politicians consorting with the Mafia). In Turin traffic was grinding to a halt as infrastructure projects for 2006 - notably transport links and sports facilities - made their presence felt. But up in the mountains the Winter Olympics organisation shrugged its shoulders about Rome, Turin and double-entry bookkeeping, and got on with the job. Sestrière, the focus of the skiing events, is already a building site thanks to the construction of its Olympic village. New hotels have come on stream, the ski lifts have seen great improvement and the resort's snow-making capacity has been increased. On 13 December a World Cup race staged on the Olympic slalom course served as a symbolic start for the promotion of the Games; and that evening I joined a group of journalists in the resort.

The following day a ski guide took us up to the piste on which the longer and faster giant slalom race will be held in February 2006. She judged the course to be "short but technical". I understood "short", but luckily Graham Bell, the former World Cup racer who now provides expert commentary for the BBC's ski coverage, was on hand to explain that, in this context, "technical" means fast and bumpy. Very steep in the top section, the course flattens momentarily before descending sharply to a plateau and plunging into a right-hand sweep. The bumpy, skittering left-hander that follows leads to a straightish run to the finish with another steep pitch halfway down.

Bell reckoned it not to be his sort of course. So who would it suit? "Right now, Bode Miller - he seems to win everything," was his reply. Right on cue the US skier, who had stayed on at Sestrière after easily winning the previous day's slalom, turned up at the lift.

A shortage of snow limited the amount of skiing available, but we were able to try out the 2006 downhill course, a long and invigorating descent with superb views. And once the racers - among them Alain Baxter - had departed, I gingerly tackled the slalom slope. Racing pistes are injected with water to make them as hard as ice. Expert skiers with sharp edges on their skis can turn on such a surface; average skiers with rented skis just tend to descend in a fairly straight line. Halfway down I gave up and escaped over the fence and on to softer snow.

The slalom course is rated on Sestrière's piste map as a black (expert) run. Although steep it is also wide, so under normal conditions it doesn't provide much of a challenge. When prepared for racing, however, it requires a degree of skill that recreational skiers lack. Which is emblematic of the incompatibility of ski racing and winter holidays.

Sestrière is fairly well known as a ski resort, not just in Italy but also in northern Europe. A good place to ski, particularly off the 2,823m Motta peak, it is the lynchpin of the Milky Way area, whose 400km of linked skiing straddles the border between Italy and France. The purpose of the 2006 Winter Olympics, which will cost about €3bn (£2.15bn) to stage, is to promote Sestrière, Sauze d'Oulx (venue for the Olympic freestyle skiing events) and Bardonecchia (snowboarding). The Olympics promises to turn them into international brands.

The Games will undoubtedly make Sestrière a better place to ski. It will gain five new lifts, and access will become easier, too - except during the Games. For those two weeks, recreational skiers will not be welcome on Sestrière's slopes, and accommodation in the town will be at worst unavailable, at best prohibitively expensive. The two biggest UK ski operators, Crystal and Thomson, have no accommodation on offer for 10-26 February. Thomson does have a hotel under long-term contract in Sestrière; but for the Games it has been rented to the BBC.

Does staying and skiing at Sauze d'Oulx (which has some lovely pistes) and popping over to Sestrière to see the Olympic skiing seem like a good idea? No: the gondola that links the two resorts will be accessible only to Olympic personnel and participants during the Games. The reality is that if you want to see Olympic skiing, Sestrière is the only place to be in February 2006; if you want a winter sports holiday at that time, anywhere else would be better.

If watching the Olympic racers is your choice, you may have cause to be grateful that TOROC hired Emilio Pozzi to take charge of venue management for the Games. Pozzi, 38, who was born in Florence, has an impressive CV: he has worked in the US on the World Cup, the Atlanta Olympics and the last Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He admits to feeling some culture shock after returning to Italy. "In the US there's a tradition of mounting big events," he says. "Here, you really have to explain the tourism benefits. People want to ski on the slopes where the Olympics took place. Look at Squaw Valley: the Winter Olympics were there in 1960 but people still talk about it as if it were yesterday - and the resort can still add $5 to a ski pass because of it."

In America there's also a greater appreciation of the need for long-term planning, Pozzi says. "If there were a meeting now about the 2009 Super Bowl, all the decision-makers would be in attendance. But in Italy, if you hold a meeting in summer 2002 about an event that's scheduled for winter 2006, the decision-makers send their representatives. When, finally, they come they realise that decisions have been made that cannot be reversed."

Pozzi expects the recent financial problems to have been resolved by now. (A critical meeting took place on 28 December.) "The success of the Games depends on providing good food, great hospitality and great accommodation: that's what Italy is all about," he says. Ultimately he reckons the Olympics will be a success for three reasons: "Because we have brand new facilities; because we'll offer great hospitality; and because we have great staff from around the world for the Games."

Stephen Wood travelled with the bespoke tour company Momentum Ski (020 7371 9111; www.momentumski.com), which will offer Olympics packages to Sestrière. More Games information at www.torino2006.org

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly direct to Turin on British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com), easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) or Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com). Turin's Sandro Petrini aiport is 16km from the centre of the city at Caselle. Buses operated by Sadem (00 39 011 300 0611; www.sadem.it) leave every 45 minutes, take 45 minutes and drop passengers at the Porta Nuova railway station. Single fares cost €5 (£3.50) one-way and must be bought before boarding. A taxi costs around €45 (£32).

STAYING THERE

The super-slick Meridien Lingotto Art & Tech at Via Nizza 230 (00 39 011 664 2000; www.lemeridien-lingotto.it) is housed in a section of the old Fiat factory. Doubles cost €410 (£293) with breakfast. Down the scale is the Hotel Victoria at via Nino Costa 4 (00 39 011 561 1909; www.hotelvictoria-torino.com) where doubles start at €163 (£115), with breakfast. Turin also offers some good-value B&Bs. The centrally located Casa Marga at via Bava 1bis (00 39 011 883 8927) offers a double room with breakfast for €60 (£43).

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