By Carol Matlack Remember the frantic scramble to get Athens ready for the 2004 Olympics? Europe has another Olympics coming up on Feb. 10, when the 2006 Winter Games are set to open in the northern Italian city of Turin. This time, though, the preparations seem to be well in hand. "We have a lot of work to do, but we are serene, and there are no emergencies," says Valentino Castellani, president of the local organizing committee.
To win the Games, Turin promised nearly $2.5 billion in improvements that organizers say are almost complete. They include newly constructed arenas for ice hockey, figure skating, and speed skating, as well as three Olympic villages, and an overhaul of the stadium where the opening ceremonies will be held. Roads to Olympic venues in the Alps outside Turin have been upgraded, the city's historic center has been spiffed up, and local authorities are set to open a 9-kilometer-long subway line, the city's first, in late December.
An International Olympic Committee delegation headed by legendary French skier Jean-Claude Killy issued an upbeat report after making its final pre-Games inspection. "In and around Turin, great preparation work has been accomplished," Killy said in a statement on Nov. 30.
QUICK RECOVERY. How have the Italians done it? Efficiency, after all, has never been one of Italy's strong suits. One reason is that Winter Games are considerably smaller than their summer counterparts, with competition in only seven sports, one-fourth as many as in the Summer Games.
Athens spent more than $10 billion on its Games, four times Turin's budget, and sold about 3 million tickets, three times the projected total at Turin. Even so, Turin got off to a rocky start. The two top executives of the local organizing committee were ousted last spring amidst complaints of poor management and weak fund-raising from corporate sponsors.
But Games-watchers say the organization quickly recovered under a new management team, headed by Cesare Vaciago, the former chief of the Italian postal system, and Luciano Barra, a seasoned manager of major sports events who worked most recently for the European Athletic Assn. "They've gotten things back on track," says Mike Laflin, CEO of Sportcal.com, a London-based consulting group that advises media organizations and corporate sponsors of sports events.
"AN ITALIAN EXPERIENCE." Turin, known in Italy by the more-mellifluous name of Torino, at first glance seems an unlikely setting for the Games. A gritty industrial city of 860,000, it's best known as the headquarters of the Fiat automotive empire. But renowned ski resorts such as Sestriere and Bardonecchia lie less than an hour's drive west of the city center, in the Susan and Chisone valleys near the French border. The surrounding Piedmont region is known for its striking mountain scenery, and for some of Italy's best cooking.
Indeed, organizers promise that the Turin Games will be, in Castellani's words, "a deep and strong Italian experience," showcasing the country's heritage and its passion for design and the arts. Most of the awards ceremonies will be held in the city's historic Piazza Castello, site of a baroque castle that once housed the Dukes of Savoy. The plaza also will be the site of concerts during the Games, leading off with a Feb. 11 performance by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.
Ever style-conscious, the Italians have put their own design stamp on the Games. They've created unusual, doughnut-shaped Olympic medals stamped with images of the Piazza Castello. They even hired the famed Pininfarina design studio, best known for its work on Ferraris and Maseratis, to come up with a sleek new Olympic torch, sheathed in aluminum. The torch was lit at Olympia, Greece, on Nov. 27 and is set to arrive in Italy on Dec. 8. Designer Giorgio Armani is among several Italian celebrities who will carry it during the final approach to Turin's Olympic stadium.
LAST-MINUTE PLANNING. Of course, even the best-laid Olympic plans can go awry. Local authorities are still struggling to complete improvements to Turin's airport, though they predict that the work will be finished by the end of December. "There are always surprises, either with the weather or a whole range of other issues," said Killy after the IOC delegation's recent visit.
One good piece of news for procrastinating winter sports fans: It's not too late to plan a trip to the Games. Only about 520,000 tickets, or 60% of those available, have been sold. Tickets for the hottest events, such as hockey and figure-skating finals, are long gone, but there are plenty of seats still available, especially for less-popular sports such as luge and biathlon.
Don't wait too long to order, though. Castellani says he expects sales in Italy to soar because of the publicity surrounding the Olympic torch's arrival.
Last-minute purchasers also will have a harder time finding accommodations. The Turin Games Web site lists affordable hotel rooms, some for as little as about $100 a night, but most are in towns more than 60 miles from event venues.
PAY FOR PLAY. To get closer to the action or obtain better tickets, you'll probably have to turn to a private tour outfit, and it won't be cheap. Cosport, the Games' official ticket outlet in North America, is listing packages starting at $8,000 a person for five or six nights in a 3-star hotel, plus tickets to such sought-after events as hockey, speed skating, Alpine skiing, and figure skating.
To plan a trip to the Games, the best place to start is the Turin organizing committee's official Web site, torino2006.org. North Americans seeking tickets should go to cosport.com. For Europeans, ticket information is at torino2006.org/tickets. Tickets also are available through individual countries' Olympic Committees, which can be found through links on the Turin organizing committee Web site. Lodging information is available at jumbograndieventi.it
Indeed, with so much of the preparation finished, the biggest uncertainty now is the kind that Olympics organizers are eager for: Who will win? Can Michelle Kwan of the U.S. finally grab a gold medal in figure skating? Will Austrian downhill ski star Hermann "The Herminator" Maier, come back to win the gold after a motorcycle accident caused him to miss the 2002 Games? Can anybody beat Canada at ice hockey?
Matlack is BusinessWeek's Paris bureau chief
with Maureen Kline in Milan