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01.01.2006 - Old flame, new fame
Its role as host of the Winter Olympics has brought investment to the Italian city of Turin, and it hopes to keep the momentum going long after the athletes have packed up their skis and skates and returned home, as Jim Sajo reports 'I am sick of all this construction,' Erica Candeletti complains. For three years, the 40 year-old bookshop owner's 7km drive to work via her daughter's school has taken her an hour. 'I can't wait for the Olympics to be over,' she adds, with understandable frustration. This is Turin, home to Italy's automobile industry, where, ironically, using a car has become a nightmare.

Since June 1999, when the International Olympic Committee chose Turin to host the 2006 Winter Olympics, much of the city has become a massive construction site. Even before the IOC made its choice, city leaders had developed a complex 'strategic plan', combining ambitious goals, broad consensus, and a little funding to rebuild Turin's economy and image. The Games added desperately needed resources from regional and federal coffers, corporate sponsors and private investors.

To manage the aggressive transformation, planners created Turin International, an agency comprising representatives from city, provincial and regional governments, business leaders, trade unions and citizen groups. It coordinated actions under the strategic plan, signed off completed projects, and updated the plan with new proposals and adjustments to existing programs.

A prime focus was accessibility. Turin International Airport was the beneficiary of a massive facelift and its flights doubled to more than 450 each week. The roads that circumnavigate the city have been resurfaced and widened. A high-speed rail line will whisk visitors from Milan's massive international airport directly to Turin in about 90 minutes. The metropolitan bus and tram network is now excellent.

Coffee shop manager Claudia Esposito is cautiously optimistic: 'The construction was a nightmare, no question. But they did 15 years of work in five years. I don't think all the projects were needed - we could use more schools or improvements to hospitals instead of a wider avenue or new car parks - but for the most part things are better.'

Turin International also aimed to enhance business, training and research opportunities. Small industries, particularly in the field of communications and information technology, have grown, bringing jobs and helping create a new professional class. The university is expanding, developing a Health Services programme and a Scientific Research department of increasing international standing to complement the already respected school of architecture. The chance to establish a commerce and culture-friendly city is not lost on Turin International. It has also planned for post-Olympic use for the facilities built or renovated for the Games. For example, the Olympic Stadium, used for opening and closing ceremonies, will become home to Juventus football club, 28 times Italian champions. This could be a much-needed shot-in-the-arm for Juve, which saw attendances at its former home, the rather drab, 69,000-capacity Stadio delle Alpi averaging just 28,000 in 2005.

The Palasport, after its role as ice hockey venue has finished, will become a multipurpose entertainment complex. That foresight will sustain tourism and foster investment, hopefully preventing what Spain's El País newspaper called 'the bitter-sweet awakening from the Olympic dream,' after Barcelona hosted the summer games in 1992.

Some citizens, however, remain skeptical. 'They spent millions of euros on a bobsled track,' Candeletti says. 'After the games, who will use it?' Sisters Anita and Michela Rivetti disagree. Following a family and city tradition, they own a small chocolate shop in the city centre: 'We see the Games as a wonderful opportunity,' says Michela. 'The Olympics will bring many visitors and that means customers. We rented this space a year ago and have seen an increase in business.'

Other residents take a fatalistic view. 'Turin started the film industry and lost it to Rome. We were the origin of Italian fashion and lost it to Milan. We created the automobile industry and it has failed. This was the first capital and home to Italy's best in everything, but the capital relocated, the royal family lives in exile, and our brightest move to where they can make a better living,' says local businessman Amadeo Goria. 'Why should this Olympic adventure be any different than our past?'

Historically, at least, he has a point. Turin has been no stranger to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In Olympic parlance, no sooner has it crossed the finishing line in a blaze of glory than posterity has started poring over the slow-motion replays. In the 15th century, the Savoy dynasty gained political and administrative prominence, unified the region, and chose Turin as capital. The next 400 years saw nearly continuous fighting against France, Spain and Austria. Between wars, the Savoy strove to build their grand economic, cultural and artistic legacy. In 1861, victory over Austria unified Italy, with Turin as capital. Four years later, however, that accolade was awarded to Rome and the key political influence went with it. In 1899, entrepreneur Giovanni Agnelli merged several smaller companies to create Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino - now the car giant Fiat. In a matter of years, Fiat was the largest employer in the city and virtually owned it. Now Turin hopes for another rebirth. The Olympic Games have brought money, offer a specific, identifiable and measurable goal and create a palpable, albeit guarded, optimism. 'For me, the Olympics mean I was completely booked for the period of the Games more than six months ago,' says Tiziana Rosello, who operates a small hotel in the city centre. 'That has never happened so far in advance, so things are good right now. Will this last after the Games are gone? Ask me in two years.'

Wine bar owner Davide Perano sees improvement as well. 'Six years ago this part of the city was abandoned - now it is one of the most vibrant. A new restaurant opens each month, it seems. Art galleries and small boutiques, too. I don't know how much is because of the Olympics, I am just glad I have more customers.' Since 1996, Turin has also hosted the Salone del Gusto, a bi-annual celebration of food and drink which is supported by the Slow Food Movement and which now attracts international attention.

Turin mayor Sergio Chiamparino adds: 'It would be mistaken to confine the discussion of Turin's transformation to construction projects. We are distancing ourselves from the old stereotype of a grey industrial city, and showing instead that we are a European, multicultural, eclectic and dynamic place where tradition and innovation work together.'

Trying to balance Turin's rich history with a forward look is a tall order. Perhaps Candeletti, the traffic-swamped bookshop owner, explains it best. 'I complain about the inconveniences, but the thought of the Olympic Games happening here, in my city, really is exciting.'


 © Torino Internazionale 2006