Listen to this article
The people of Turin are known for being withdrawn. I say this not because I have noticed them being anything other than the usual chatty and friendly Italians, but because other Italians say so. Even people from Turin talk garrulously and openly about how closed they are.
This is perhaps the reason behind one of the biggest let-downs of the Games, the lack of unofficial acknowledgement in the host city that anything is going on.
Turin is of course plastered with the official colours and symbols of the Games. Almost every main street is decorated on both sides with red flags, which are part of the range of official Olympic livery and, being Italian, are smart and understated.
Olympic-themed banners have also been put to practical use, often covering up unfinished construction. Glimpses of what looks like Turin’s latest thriving export - rubble - can be spotted through gaps in the hoardings.
But I am screaming out for a touch of overstatement, at least from the people of Turin.
On the balconies of apartment blocks, in the windows of shops, on the citizens’ clothing, there is nothing. No signs saying that Turin welcomes the world. No special offers for visitors to the shops and restaurants of the centre, except those that are part of a Visa-sponsored programme.
The official logo and marketing police stamp out any signs of unofficial Olympic advertising, but that should not stop ordinary people and businesses hanging out flags of welcome.
One night last week I had trouble finding an open restaurant in the centre, let alone one saying I could have a free Games cocktail featuring spirits in the colours of the five Olympic rings. “Drink three and we throw you down the bobsleigh track!”
Italians don’t go in for flag waving as much as, for example, Americans. Probably only the performances of the Italian national football team can pull everyone together. If the Olympics in their own town can’t instil an outbreak of Torinese pride, it’s hard to imagine what would.
So I was heartened and surprised to find that not all heads are buried in a snowdrift. One or two people at least are alive to the possibilities.
In Turin’s cathedral, a little down on the left from the entrance, is a large blown-up cardboard photograph of Pier Giorgio Frassati, “a saint on skis” as he is described in large letters. And indeed there he is, standing on the snow in Bardonecchia, where the snowboarding events of these Olympics are taking place.
The cathedral, and nearby convent to which one is directed for a small exhibition about Frassati for the duration of the Games, have taken the opportunity to advertise the worthy life of someone who liked being in the mountains.
It turns out that the connection to skiing is slightly opportunistic, but so what? In any case, the large picture shows a strong-looking young man, squinting a little from the sunlight and wearing some ancient-looking ski equipment. He has a number 25 on his chest and what could be a cigarette or cheroot sticking out of his mouth. The photo was taken in 1925, the year Frassati died of polio aged 24.
Frassati is laid to rest in the cathedral and was beatified by the last pope. He had a short life of religious devotion, battles against fascism, helping the poor, and, apparently, practical joking and mountaineering.
He once wrote to a friend: “I left my heart on the mountain peaks and I hope to retrieve it this summer when I climb Mont Blanc. If my studies permitted, I would spend whole days on the mountains admiring in that pure atmosphere the magnificence of God.”
Bode Miller, the brash American who has had a very disappointing Games so far, seems equally wedded to the mountains, when compared at any rate with the medals ceremonies three hours’ away in Turin’s centre.
“At least I don’t have to go all the way down to Torino tomorrow,” was his churlish response to not winning a medal last week for which he was strongly fancied. I can imagine what the skiing saint would say to that.