Skip to main content
Original Issue

Rising from The Ashes

The XX Winter Olympics have given Turin a moment of glory that may finally overshadow one of the city's greatest tragedies: the plane crash that killed all the starters on its beloved soccer team, Torino, 57 years ago

Early last Fridaymorning, at a church on a hill in a city of sorrow, the Olympic flame yieldedto a higher power. Later that day the flame's odd journey across Italy, whichhad been interrupted again and again by people using its passing to stagevarious protests, would end at the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Gamesin Turin. Anyone with a statement to make knew that this day provided a chancefor maximum exposure. But nobody dared to divert the torch on the first segmentof the day's journey. Nobody dared protest a thing. ¶ No, the Olympic flame wassurrounded by love as its final transit began. Hundreds of Turinese beat thesun up the steep hill and surrounded the flame in a ring of waving flags and achorus of simple songs. They did this not because of the Olympics but becauseof the squat man holding the torch, and because of where he stood. UrbanoCairo, the new owner of the soccer team Torino, popularly known as il Toro, hadcome at last to the church called Superga. Cairo held the torch high. Then heran around to the back, where on May 4, 1949, most members of the greatestTorino team died in a plane crash and where, now, early sunlight splashed overthe names of the dead carved in stone. Cairo crossed himself and bent one kneeto the ground. The crowd went silent. The flame flickered. Next to theinscribed stone, a weathered graffito summed up local sports fans' priorities:NO TORO, NO TORO OLIMPIADI. Without Toro, no Olympics.

Turin's organizingcommittee knew what it was doing. In any other city it might seem odd to kickoff a two-week celebration with a trip to the dead zone. But Turin is not acity of light, like Paris, or a city of fun, like Sydney; the most famous thingabout it is an ancient burial shroud, and Turin's most famous postwar momentcame when that plane lost its way in the ever-present fog. The city's characteris, according to Mario Pescante, Italy's undersecretary of culture, "verycold. It's a very isolated city. They live with a kind of melancholy."

The tragedy of ilGrande Torino, as the team was called, may have something to do with that. Theclub had won four straight Italian league titles when 18 of its players andanother 13 passengers perished on a flight back from Lisbon. Ten of the 11starters on the Italian national soccer team had worn Torino's oxblood jerseysin league play. Beloved for its grit and innovative play, il Grande Torino hadbeen a palliative for a nation disgraced in World War II; some 500,000 mournersturned out to watch the coffins pass. The team hasn't had an easy road sincethen. Currently in sixth place in Italy's second division, Torino long agoceded its on-field preeminence to the city's other club, the powerhouseJuventus. Last summer Torino teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and its fansthreatened to sabotage the Olympics if the city fathers allowed il Toro to gounder. No one was shocked by that: Most Turinese say that despite Juventus'sdominance, its support comes more from outside Turin and from the city's newerresidents, those who identify only with success. Natives with deep rootsusually wear red. Every year on May 4 they still troop up the hill to payrespects at Superga. Every day someone leaves a wreath or flowers.

"It's in thesuffering that you really find solidarity," says Franco Ossola. When Cairoreturned from his pilgrimage to the back of Superga, Ossola was waiting at thefront. A member of the 1972 Italian Olympic track team, Ossola, 56, wasqualified to carry the flame next. But he had also been chosen because hisfather, Franco, was a Grande Torino star and because the son runs the teammuseum lodged in the basilica.

It's only fittingthat Ossola views these Olympics with ambivalence. The snowless city hardlythrummed with anticipation in the days before the opening ceremonies, and bothinside Turin and at the distant Olympic sites scattered through the Alps,workers were still frantically assembling and painting. Turin was less readyfor its Games than much-maligned Athens was in 2004, and it didn't seem tocare. Hundreds of thousands of tickets went begging, and scalpers had to sellopening ceremonies seats for half of face value. Why? "It's acombination," Ossola says. "People here are not very exuberant, and Ifeel more like the Games have been forced on us, because we're not really awinter town. If pressed, yes, I'll say I'm proud. But it's not a naturalfeeling."

Such an attitudehas been off-putting to the thousands of visitors seeking that elusive Olympicspirit, but then, these Games have been curious from the start. Before thisyear's site was announced in 1999, Sion, Switzerland, had been thefront-runner. But a backroom backlash against a Swiss IOC member who inDecember 1998 accused other members of having accepted bribes from pasthost-city candidates--and the clout wielded by the Fiat auto company'snow-deceased president, Gianni Agnelli--pushed a stunned Turin into the slot.Agnelli's final legacy to his hometown, once Italy's capital, would be newinfrastructure, 54,000 jobs, a boost in tourism and a chance to overcome itsinferiority complex in relation to Milan and Rome. But wedged as they werebetween the Summer Olympics' return home to Greece and Beijing's coming-outparty, the 2006 Winter Games, in a tweener town, were fated to have a tweenerfeel.

Ossola took histurn with the torch, carrying it about 150 yards down the hill before passingit on. From Superga you could see the city below and the pinkish Alps in thedistance: these far-flung Olympics united, for a rare moment, in a singlepanorama. 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. "WithCairo, Torino has been reborn," Ossola says, "but he's a veryegotistical 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 oldcleats, his father's contract. In a glass case lay a postcard, dated the daybefore the crash, from Ossola's father to his family. Thinking of you fondly,it read.

"I've neverhad a morning like this," Cairo said afterward. "It's an extraordinaryemotion."

"We won ourOlympics here this morning," Ossola said. "This was the real openingceremony."

As he spoke, theflame went stuttering on its daylong run. Late that night it arrived in therefurbished stadium where Luciano Pavarotti sang and Italy's Olympic team wasgreeted with huge applause, and some Turinese felt a warmth they hadn'texpected. "At the deciding moment the city changes the attitude," saidPescante the next morning. "I hope the enthusiasm will continue."

Who knows? For thecity it matters far more that when these Olympics end, the sparkling stadiumwill be handed over to the Torino football club. It matters far more that Cairopaid his respects at Superga. Someday, if Torino can become a soccer poweragain and dislodge Juventus, the faithful will say it began with the flame.Someday, Turin just might remember these Olympics as a beautiful thing.



AGONY AND ECSTASY Turin mourned the loss of its soccer players in 1949 and reveled in Italy's Olympic team last Friday.