Torino Ushers in 2006 Olympics

Published February 11, 2006

| Associated Press

A dazzled, cheering audience danced on their chairs in the winter cold Friday night and the opening ceremony of the Winter Games became one giant house party.

Passion was the show's theme and passion was what poured from the audience, right up to the arrival of the Olympic torch, carried by skiing hero Alberto "La Bomba" Tomba, who ran up the stage steps and handed it off to a succession of Italian medal winners.

Ultimately it was Stefania Belmondo, a two-time gold medal winner in cross-country skiing, who touched the flame to a wire that ignited fireworks and lit the Olympic caldron.

The cheering crowd screamed its delight — just one of the many times it did so throughout the three-hour show.

But it wasn't truly over until the big man sang.

Luciano Pavarotti performed "Nessun Dorma," ("Let No One Sleep"), from Puccini's "Turandot," an aria that the tenor has turned into a signature piece.

While that closing number sent spectators home happy, it was the parade of nations that really got the party going.

More than 2,500 athletes arrived to the accompaniment of chest-thumping disco ranging from "YMCA" by the Village People to "I Will Survive," by Gloria Gaynor.

Italy, as host country, entered last and brought down the house. Dressed in fur-trimmed coats, against the pulsating, popular Italian pop song "Una Donna Per Amico" ("A Woman For a Friend"), the crowd jumped to its feet, and shouted while ringing souvenir cow bells provided by show organizers.

Second only to the audience's reaction to Italy was the roaring welcome given to the Americans. Around the packed stadium, fans stood and clapped as "Daddy Cool" blared through loudspeakers.

More than 200 U.S. athletes, wearing white coats and hats of blue and red, waived and blew kisses. Giant video screens showed a smiling first lady Laura Bush.

In an unusual security move, three plain-clothed guards followed the Danish team as it marched through — a precaution that responded to recent violence by Muslims enraged at derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in Danish newspapers.

Security was also tight for the arrival of Mrs. Bush and Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"Rhythm, Passion and Speed," promised the show's producers, and those watching — an estimated 35,000 at the Olympic Stadium and two billion tuning in — got all of that.

The program opened with Yuri Chechi, one of Italy's most famous gymnasts, swinging a mighty hammer onto a giant anvil that sparked tall flames. Rollerbladers in red body suits zoomed across the stage, two-foot flames shooting out the back of their heads.

Next came a tribute to the seven countries abutting the majestic Alps — including Austria, Germany and France. Dancers wearing green sheaths pranced near brightly painted fake cows pulled on rollers. It was a homage to mountain life and livestock, and to cheer both, the stadium audience was supplied with the cow bells.

In what executive producer Marco Bacilli described as an "iconic moment," silver-clad dancers appeared with big, white bubbles stuck to their heads. Bacilli, who has staged concert shows for U2 and the Rolling Stones, said the balls signified snow, of which there is none in Turin.

This northwest city, home to both Fiat and Savoy-era mansions, has exhibited a certain ambivalence to the Winter Games, largely because of an ever-changing pattern of traffic detours and street closures. The weather, hovering in the high 30s and low 40s this week, melted more than a foot and a half of recent snow and prompted officials in the mountain venues to churn out the man-made kind.

For the first time, eight women carried the Olympic flag: Italian actress Sophia Loren, Chilean writer Isabel Allende, American actress Susan Sarandon, Nobel Peace-prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya, and three Olympic medal winners. They were Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco, Manuela Di Centa of Italy, and Maria Mutola of Mozambique. The eighth was Cambodian human rights activist Somaly Mam.

Behind the scenes, 6,100 volunteers helped stage the event, for which they had practiced an estimated 10,000 hours. Cost of both the opening and closing ceremonies: $34 million.

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