Olympic loner aims to come in from cold

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Like a slalom skier coming good late in the second run to snatch victory, Turin, the Winter Olympics and even the weather seem to have got their act together just in time for today’s opening action.

There is still evidence of construction around the Piedmont city but the beautiful baroque centre of Italy’s first capital is mostly uncovered and displaying its charms. The projected budget shortfall of the games is shrinking. There has been a late run on tickets. And, after a terrible lack of snow since Christmas, northern Italy had one of its largest falls in decades at the end of January.

To cap it all, the Italians suddenly have Giorgio Rocca, their first male skier with a real chance of an Alpine skiing gold for more than a decade. Italy had modest success in the most popular watched sports at the last Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and it is 14 years since the flamboyant Alberto Tomba won his last Olympic gold medal in the giant slalom in Albertville.

Rocca came along just as it seemed there was little prospect of high-profile gold for the hosts in Italy’s first Olympics since 1960. He won five World Cup slalom events in a row up to the middle of January and caused the organisers to talk about building more seats for spectators.

He and the charismatic Bode Miller from the US are virtually the only male favourites for medals in the Alpine sports who are not Austrian. Rocca is 30 and not a newcomer but has emerged as a winner after steady improvement in recent years.

Tomba says of the new home hope: “He’s in really good shape and this year is determined. If he can face the pressure of the Olympics he will be the man to beat on the slalom course.”

The former champion explains in an interview with the FT how hard it is to succeed at sport in Italy if you are not a footballer, and says that is why there have been very few ski champions since his day. “The Italian sport is soccer, and it’s easy to create champions since everybody plays and there’s a lot of investment. Regarding the minor sports, we usually have a 10-year gap between champions because there is less money for training and equipment.”

Winter sports are expensive. “The skis have to be built somewhere, you have to travel up and down mountains, looking for September snow in Chile, and glaciers in August . . . after their teenage years athletes need a lot of determination, money, time and energy. If the results don’t come fast, there’s no second chance.”

Rocca’s big chance is next week in two weeks on the final Saturday. Even a small piece of the adulation that Tomba received would mark a great end to the games.

Tomba recalls that when he was winning his first Olympic medals in Calgary in 1988 “Italian television stopped an important national show to broadcast my victories. [For] the second ones, thousands of people went from Italy to see the races live. [Coming back] the third time, from Norway, I had to choose a secondary airport to land because of all the fans waiting for me.”

It would be an overstatement, though, to say the press has already gone Rocca mad. Never mind the whole of Italy, the most important sporting event this weekend even for the people of Turin is probably tomorrow’s football match between Inter Milan and Juventus. The Turin side are nine points ahead of second-placed Inter at the head of Serie A, Italy’s top league.

Indeed the country has conspicuously failed to portray hype the Olympics as a big moment for national pride, in contrast for example with the way the UK greeted the awarding of the 2012 Summer Olympics to London. The different cultures and traditions of Italy’s regions frequently stand in the way of national unity. And, regarding the games, they have created friction and a marked apathy towards Turin outside the north.

At times it seems as if Turin, a city traditionally to the political left, has been on its own, without financial sponsorship from large Rome-based companies and with little vocal backing from the centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi.

The government sent Mario Pescante, the sports minister, to help run the games’ organisation and ensure that infrastructure-spending bills made it through parliament. Otherwise, Berlusconi and many other public figures have been largely silent.

Turin’s leaders view the games and the anticipated 1m spectators as the centre of a large programme of regeneration. The decision to bid for the Olympics came in tandem with a strategic plan that was created between 1998 and 2000. That put forward numerous objectives shared by businesses and regional agencies. Areas covered ranged from improving access to Turin to better educational facilities and wide-ranging urban renewal.

Billions of euros have been put into infrastructure, much linked to the Olympics but also including high-speed rail links and enhanced road networks. That has in turn prompted ugly environmental protests, work has been disrupted and there have been demonstrations to coincide with the passage of the Olympic torch around Italy.

The core idea of regeneration is to rediscover the city’s broad economic and cultural base. Turin has always been a cultural centre – the seat of the Kingdom of Savoy, an association with the early days of cinema and the place where Antonio Gramsci, the political activist and philosopher, rose to prominence. But the city is best known for its industry and for being the home of Fiat. whose cars have at times defined European cool. Turin’s decline has mirrored that of the industrial giant.

Fiat employed 232,000 people in 1961 and probably more than 50 per cent of the population was dependent on the company. Today the company employs just 15,000 in the city. Fiat has lately shown signs of improved health, though its executives are keen to emphasise that they do not want to be solely responsible for Turin’s revival.

The regeneration creation of the strategy plan and the organisation of the games have reinforced the notion of a confident Turin more or less going it alone. That perhaps explains some of the ambivalence towards the Olympics from elsewhere in the country.

Nevertheless Tomba, who during the Olympics will be a commentator and roving ambassador for organisers and sponsors, has “faith in the Italian sporting soul” and that the Italian people will come out in support.

And, he says, he might find time to watch the curling, perhaps the games’ most bizarre spectacle, in which the British team defends its only gold from last time in the women’s event. For a man of the snow, Tomba finds the game on ice “calm, strange and interesting”.

For coverage of the Winter Olympics, click here

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