And so they begin: Benvenuto! Welcome to the Winter Games

This gritty city below the Alps gave a heartfelt "benvenuto" Friday night to the Winter Games, in 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.

"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. What they didn't get was an explanation for some of the extravaganza's more surreal moments punctuated by Fellini, Dante and dancing trees.

Or for this: Rollerbladers in red body stockings who hurtled down ramps onto a white stage, the backs of their heads shooting two-foot (60-centimeter) bursts of fire.

In 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 had been supplied with clanging 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.

Most of all, it was an evening dedicated to all things Italian. Giorgio Armani designed the sparkling white, floor-length gown worn by supermodel Carla Bruni when she carried Italy's flag. Classical dancer and favorite son Roberto Bolle, who hails from the Piedmont province that encompasses Turin, performed a surrealistic interlude described as "a modern, futuristic dance."

Fashion house Moschino designed the costumes of the women who held signs announcing each country's delegation in the parade of athletes. The motif: sweeping white hoop skirts with three-dimensional mountain peaks signifying the Alps.

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.

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 "Think" by Aretha Franklin to the choice for Italy's delegation: "YMCA" by the Village People.

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: Ђ28.5 million (US$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, reports AP.


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