TURIN, Italy Jan. 27, 2005 (AP by Andrew Dampf) - Figure skaters glide across the freshly laid ice at the renovated Palavela arena. Short-track speedskating is a big hit with the locals. Ski and bobsled races come off without a hitch in the surrounding Alps.
One year before the 2006 Winter Olympics, Turin and the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy are getting a taste of the real thing.
So far, so good.
Despite continuing budget, sponsorship and housing problems, a series of successful test events has eased concerns over the state of preparations for the Feb. 10-26, 2006, showcase _ the first Winter Games in Italy since Cortina d'Ampezzo in 1956.
``I don't want any triumphalism _ I'm aware that we still have a lot of work to do,'' organizing committee chief Valentino Castellani said. ``But we don't have delays or emergencies.''
A few months ago, Turin's preparations were being compared to Athens' frenzied, last-minute race to get ready for the 2004 Summer Olympics. Now there's a sense of relative calm among local organizers and International Olympic Committee officials.
``I don't think there is any possible comparison between Athens and Turin,'' said Gilbert Felli, the IOC's executive director for the Olympic Games. ``The venue for figure skating is ready. The venues for cross-country, ski jumping and all the Alpine skiing are ready, so there is nothing to compare with Athens. They are on track.''
Felli spoke after attending this week's opening of the European Figure Skating Championships at the 8,250-seat Palavela, featuring an arching cement roof resembling a billowing sail.
Workers were still painting and tinkering with wires days before the event, but completed the job just in time.
The Palavela also hosted the European short-track speedskating championships this month, drawing full crowds for a sport with little following in Italy.
Cross-country ski races took place Jan. 22-23 in Pragelato; bobsled and skeleton events were held Jan. 20-23 and luge events are scheduled for Feb. 5-6 in Cesana-Pariol. In December, the World Cup ski circuit made its annual stop in Sestriere, a resort founded by Fiat's Agnelli family that will be the center for Alpine events during the Olympics.
Ice sports will be in downtown Turin and snow events in Sestriere and surrounding villages, about 62 miles from the city. There will be three Olympic villages _ one in Turin for 2,500 athletes and coaches and two more in the mountains for an equal number of competitors. Housing problems remain in the Alpine zone for fans, media and others.
The organizing committee (TOROC) is encouraging the expansion of existing hotels and asking residents to open up their vacation homes for some of the 1.5 million spectators expected during the games.
There also are tentative plans to house some of TOROC's work force in temporary housing.
``We've done a lot of work. (Accommodation) was a very delicate, difficult matter. In our candidacy, it was one of our weakest points,'' Castellani said.
In November, Castellani _ a former left-leaning mayor of Turin _ threatened to resign as local Olympics chief in the face of mounting criticism from Italy's right-leaning government and a budget shortfall of $235 million.
In the end, Castellani stayed on, although he must now work with a government-appointed supervisor, Mario Pescante, a sports and cultural undersecretary who is also an IOC member.
It's been unclear how the two men will share responsibility, but they've avoided any conflict so far.
``My role is president of the organizing committee. The role of Mario Pescante, alongside me on behalf of the government, is to be a special sort of go-between,'' Castellani said.
``I'm here morning until night, he's here part-time,'' Castellani said in an interview at TOROC's bustling headquarters in a northern Turin neighborhood.
The budget gap, now reduced to $196 million, is due mainly to a lack of support ffrom state-owned companies. But TOROC and the government say the funds should be secured soon.
TOROC's operating budget is around $1.5 billion. That doesn't count funds spent by the government on infrastructure projects.
``For someone's personal budget, $196 million is a stratospheric figure, but it's only (a fraction) of the entire games' cost,'' Castellani said.
IOC president Jacques Rogge met with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi in November in Rome to press for government assistance in financing and promoting the games.
``At the end of the day, I'm sure the Italian government will do the necessary thing,'' Felli said.
For decades, Turin was a city dominated by Fiat, with migrant workers from the south filling the automaker's factories. Now, with Fiat fallen on hard times, the population is dwindling and the games are being used to revitalize depressed areas.
In fact, Italy's former industrial capital is being transformed like no other Winter Games host city. The city currently resembles a giant construction site, with cranes dotting the skyline.
A new subway system, high-speed rail links to Paris and Milan and a new central train station are just some of the major works in progress.
Castellani said his city is using Barcelona _ the Spanish site of the 1992 Summer Games that turned itself into one of Europe's cultural capitals _ as its model.
``We studied Barcelona very closely. The Olympics enabled Barcelona to rediscover its waterfront. I think the Olympics will enable Turin to rediscover the Alps,'' Castellani said with a nod to the distant snowcapped mountains visible from his top-floor office.
``Being the city of the Winter Olympics, we won't be just the city of Fiat and the city of factories anymore, but the city of the Alps.''
But can Turin also be a city of sports? It's certainly not a sporting hotbed.
``We don't have any sporting culture, at least not for these sports. People don't even go to the stadium to watch soccer here,'' said Antonio Catabano, a 31-year-old resident of Venaria Reale just outside Turin.
Juventus, one of Europe's most famous soccer clubs, plays most of its home matches inside a half-filled stadium.
``I think the Olympics will be different, it's a one-time opportunity and I think people will make sacrifices,'' Catabano said as he left an Olympic exhibition set up in one of Turin's main squares, alongside a temporary ice skating rink.
Buoyed by large crowds at the speedskating and figure skating events, Castellani is confident the fans will come out a year from now.
``We've already sold more than half of the tickets,'' he said. ``The Olympic Games have a special attraction and the Italian team is strong at winter sports.''
But Castellani wants to do more than just put on a sporting event _ he wants to offer the Olympics a slice of Italian style, culture and cuisine.
``I think that is what our country is loved for,'' he said. ``I hope that the spectators immerse themselves in our offering of culture, shopping, music and museums, good food and fine wines.
``I realize that the core business of the Olympics are the races. But for the spectators, the races are just one part of it all.''
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press