Italy's time arrives

Friday, February 10, 2006

The opening ceremony for the 20th Winter Games will be held today in Turin, Italy.

TURIN, Italy -- Fifty years ago, at the last Winter Olympics held in Italy, the opening ceremony crowd watched in disbelief as skater Guido Caroli tripped and fell while heading to light the Olympic flame.

Nothing so extraordinary should be expected at Friday night's precisely choreographed festivities in the Olympic Stadium, where the 2006 Winter Games were to begin before a full house of 35,000 spectators in Turin.

Just in case, NBC plans wall-to-wall coverage of the Italian extravaganza kicking off the 20th Winter Games.

The network will use 52 cameras -- 21 of its own, including a blimp, and 31 cameras provided by the hosts -- to beam in the opening ceremony tonight at 7 p.m. CST. Members of all 85 competing countries will march into the stadium, with Greece taking its traditional spot at the lead and Italy entering last as the host team.

For those counting at home, with the final number of participating nations still being determined late Thursday, the United States was scheduled to march 67th of 80 nations, as determined by the Italian spelling of the country's name -- Stati Uniti.

For the estimated 2 billion viewers worldwide, the ceremony promises an event filled with "Rhythm, Passion and Speed" -- six-foot shooting red flames, a performance by Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and skiing star Alberto Tomba perhaps carrying the Olympic torch, hopefully with more success than Caroli.

NBC Olympics head Dick Ebersol, who oversees the network's skates-to-slopes coverage, believes the circumstances surrounding the athletes outweigh the event's pomp.

"The Olympic opening ceremony is the most important event for the vast majority of the athletes here," Ebersol said earlier this week. "Most won't come close to a medal. And for them, this is the pinnacle of their athletic careers."

The ceremony is hosted by Bob Costas and news anchor Brian Williams. The closing ceremony will be held in the same stadium Feb. 26.

The Turin Games are NBC's most ambitious Winter Olympics production ever, with a record 418 hours of coverage planned across its half-dozen networks -- an increase of more than 40 hours from the Salt Lake Olympics of 2002. That includes about 200 hours of live coverage despite the six-hour time difference from the East Coast.

While organizers are typically staying mum on the identity of the final torch bearer, the lighting of the Olympic flame is always a highlight of the ceremony.

Four years ago, the members of the 1980 U.S. hockey gold medal team reunited to handle the honors. Japanese skating great Midori Ito, tears streaming down her face, ignited the flame at Nagano in 1998. The 1994 Lillehammer Games began with ski-jumper Stein Gruben sailing through the night sky, torch held high as the world watched.

Even Caroli, a skater who managed to keep the flame burning during his spill a half-century ago, enjoyed a role in getting this year's flame to Turin, accompanying skier Kristian Ghedina as he relayed it through Cortina in January.

Show producers did a rough rundown of the Olympic festivities on Thursday. Executive producer Marco Balich, who has worked in the past with U2 and Pink Floyd, said the show would demonstrate the "passionate way in which the Italians live life -- the way they drive, the way they dress."

The flag bearer for the U.S. team will be speedskater Chris Witty, a veteran of both the Summer and Winter Games. Witty, 30, set a world record in capturing a gold in the 1,000 meters in 2002, adding to the silver and bronze she won four years earlier in Nagano.

The Wisconsin native competed in track cycling at the 2000 Sydney Games.

For those who can't wait for their first taste of Olympic action, the USA Network will unveil its "Olympic Ice" show tonight at 5 p.m. CST. The show, co-hosted by 1948 gold medalist Dick Button, offers a daily look into one of the Winter Games' glamor sports.

And for Olympically-inclined insomniacs, NBC plans a 1:39 a.m. opening ceremony replay for Saturday.

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