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Early last Friday morning, at a church on a hill in a city of sorrow, the Olympic flame yielded to a higher power. Later that day the flame's odd journey across Italy, which had been interrupted again and again by people using its passing to stage various protests, would end at the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. Anyone with a statement to make knew that this day provided a chance for maximum exposure. But nobody dared to divert the torch on the first segment of the day's journey. Nobody dared protest a thing. � No, the Olympic flame was surrounded by love as its final transit began. Hundreds of Turinese beat the sun up the steep hill and surrounded the flame in a ring of waving flags and a chorus of simple songs. They did this not because of the Olympics but because of the squat man holding the torch, and because of where he stood. Urbano Cairo, the new owner of the soccer team Torino, popularly known as il Toro, had come at last to the church called Superga. Cairo held the torch high. Then he ran around to the back, where on May 4, 1949, most members of the greatest Torino team died in a plane crash and where, now, early sunlight splashed over the names of the dead carved in stone. Cairo crossed himself and bent one knee to the ground. The crowd went silent. The flame flickered. Next to the inscribed stone, a weathered graffito summed up local sports fans' priorities: NO TORO, NO TORO OLIMPIADI. Without Toro, no Olympics.
Turin's organizing committee knew what it was doing. In any other city it might seem odd to kick off a two-week celebration with a trip to the dead zone. But Turin is not a city of light, like Paris, or a city of fun, like Sydney; the most famous thing about it is an ancient burial shroud, and Turin's most famous postwar moment came when that plane lost its way in the ever-present fog. The city's character is, according to Mario Pescante, Italy's undersecretary of culture, "very cold. It's a very isolated city. They live with a kind of melancholy."
The tragedy of il Grande Torino, as the team was called, may have something to do with that. The club had won four straight Italian league titles when 18 of its players and another 13 passengers perished on a flight back from Lisbon. Ten of the 11 starters on the Italian national soccer team had worn Torino's oxblood jerseys in league play. Beloved for its grit and innovative play, il Grande Torino had been a palliative for a nation disgraced in World War II; some 500,000 mourners turned out to watch the coffins pass. The team hasn't had an easy road since then. Currently in sixth place in Italy's second division, Torino long ago ceded its on-field preeminence to the city's other club, the powerhouse Juventus. Last summer Torino teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and its fans threatened to sabotage the Olympics if the city fathers allowed il Toro to go under. No one was shocked by that: Most Turinese say that despite Juventus's dominance, its support comes more from outside Turin and from the city's newer residents, those who identify only with success. Natives with deep roots usually wear red. Every year on May 4 they still troop up the hill to pay respects at Superga. Every day someone leaves a wreath or flowers.
"It's in the suffering that you really find solidarity," says Franco Ossola. When Cairo returned from his pilgrimage to the back of Superga, Ossola was waiting at the front. A member of the 1972 Italian Olympic track team, Ossola, 56, was qualified to carry the flame next. But he had also been chosen because his father, Franco, was a Grande Torino star and because the son runs the team museum lodged in the basilica.
It's only fitting that Ossola views these Olympics with ambivalence. The snowless city hardly thrummed with anticipation in the days before the opening ceremonies, and both inside Turin and at the distant Olympic sites scattered through the Alps, workers were still frantically assembling and painting. Turin was less ready for its Games than much-maligned Athens was in 2004, and it didn't seem to care. Hundreds of thousands of tickets went begging, and scalpers had to sell opening ceremonies seats for half of face value. Why? "It's a combination," Ossola says. "People here are not very exuberant, and I feel more like the Games have been forced on us, because we're not really a winter town. If pressed, yes, I'll say I'm proud. But it's not a natural feeling."
Such an attitude has been off-putting to the thousands of visitors seeking that elusive Olympic spirit, but then, these Games have been curious from the start. Before this year's site was announced in 1999, Sion, Switzerland, had been the front-runner. But a backroom backlash against a Swiss IOC member who in December 1998 accused other members of having accepted bribes from past host-city candidates--and the clout wielded by the Fiat auto company's now-deceased president, Gianni Agnelli--pushed a stunned Turin into the slot. Agnelli's final legacy to his hometown, once Italy's capital, would be new infrastructure, 54,000 jobs, a boost in tourism and a chance to overcome its inferiority complex in relation to Milan and Rome. But wedged as they were between the Summer Olympics' return home to Greece and Beijing's coming-out party, the 2006 Winter Games, in a tweener town, were fated to have a tweener feel.
Ossola took his turn with the torch, carrying it about 150 yards down the hill before passing it on. From Superga you could see the city below and the pinkish Alps in the distance: these far-flung Olympics united, for a rare moment, in a single panorama. Ossola led Cairo, who lives in Milan, to the fallen team's museum. Five months in control of the club, and Cairo had never been there. "With Cairo, Torino has been reborn," Ossola says, "but he's a very egotistical man. He thinks Torino is him. He doesn't feel Toro's history." So as fans pressed in from all sides, Ossola pointed out the pictures, the old cleats, his father's contract. In a glass case lay a postcard, dated the day before the crash, from Ossola's father to his family. Thinking of you fondly, it read.
"I've never had a morning like this," Cairo said afterward. "It's an extraordinary emotion."
"We won our Olympics here this morning," Ossola said. "This was the real opening ceremony."
As he spoke, the flame went stuttering on its daylong run. Late that night it arrived in the refurbished stadium where Luciano Pavarotti sang and Italy's Olympic team was greeted with huge applause, and some Turinese felt a warmth they hadn't expected. "At the deciding moment the city changes the attitude," said Pescante the next morning. "I hope the enthusiasm will continue."