Originally created 02/11/06

Benvenuto! Welcome to the Winter Games

TURIN, Italy - This gritty city below the Alps gave a heartfelt "benvenuto" Friday night to the Winter Games, a fiery opening ceremony dedicated to passion and to igniting the competitive spirits of more than 2,500 of the world's best athletes.

Before a cheering audience bundled against the winter cold, Yuri Chechi, one of Italy's greatest gymnasts and a gold medal winner, swung a mighty hammer onto a bronze anvil. And so the pageantry began.

And so did the partying.

"Rhythm, Passion and Speed," promised the show's producers, and those watching - an estimated 35,000 at the Olympic Stadium and 2 billion tuning in - got all of that.

Italian influences took a temporary reprieve during the long procession of some 80 countries - chest-thumping American dance music from soul to disco accompanied the jubilant throng, from "YMCA" by the Village People to "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor.

Italy, as host country, appeared last and brought down the house. Dressed in fur-trimmed coats, against the backdrop of the pulsating, popular Italian pop song "Una Donna Per Amico" ("A Woman for A Friend)," the crowd jumped to its feet, dancing and shouting and ringing their souvenir cow bells.

After that, it turned into a giant house party, with the audience dancing and singing and jumping atop chairs. Everybody seemed to be boogeying to James Brown's "I Feel Good" and to an Italian version of the disco classic "Gloria.

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

More than 200 U.S. athletes, wearing white coats and hats of blue and red, waved and blew kisses to the cheering audience. Giant video screens showed first lady Laura Bush smiling broadly.

In a highly unusual security move, three plain-clothed guards followed the Danish team as they marched through the stadium - a precaution because of recent violence by Muslims enraged at deragatory cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in Danish newspapers.

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

The program opened with 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.

Giorgio Armani designed the sparkling white, floor-length gown worn by supermodel Carla Bruni when she presented Italy's flag.

A young girl sang "L'Inno di Mameli" a cappella, the Italian national anthem, followed by a rousing version played by a full orchestra.

A little harder to understand were some of the extravaganza's more surreal moments punctuated by Fellini, Dante and dancing trees.

Or Rollerbladers in red body stockings who hurtled down ramps onto a white stage, the backs of their heads shooting two-foot bursts of fire.

Undulating dancers in red bowed to the Olympic rings while they were being raised on 40-foot cranes. When all five rings were linked, they changed from white to the colors of Olympic unity - red, yellow, green, black and blue.

Those icons formed the portal under which athletes paraded into the stadium.

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.

Who would carry the torch was a closely guarded secret right up to the ceremony's beginning. Rumored contenders included two Italian Olympic heroes: cross-country skier Stefania Belmondo and skier Alberto "La Bomba" Tomba. Neither was shy about wanting the honor.

The ceremony, which also features Peter Gabriel performing John Lennon's "Imagine," recitations of the Italian national anthem and speeches by IOC President Jacques Rogge and other dignitaries, was not truly over until the big man sang.

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti was the closing act.


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