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Lessons in Italian provocation

For fans of Les Bleus, this column has nothing to do with Marco Materazzi and what he may have said to Zinedine Zidane to earn a head butt to the chest.

For fans of Les Bleus, this column has nothing to do with Marco Materazzi and what he may have said to Zinedine Zidane to earn a head butt to the chest.

It has, instead, to do with a couple of Italians in Vancouver this week to talk about the Torino Olympics, Valentino Castellani, president of the Torino Organizing Committee, and Cesare Vaciago, CEO of TOROC.

The two were speaking at the opening of a week-long conference intended to help organizers of the next four Olympic Games learn from Torino’s experience. Representatives from Beijing, London, Vancouver and Whistler, and the three candidate cities for the 2014 Winter Olympics are attending the sessions to learn about transportation issues, venues, athletes’ villages, security, garbage removal and all manner of technical issues.

But it was comments Castellani and Vaciago made about the more intangible, human aspects of the Torino Games that may be most enlightening.

Keep in mind that these men are under no pressure anymore, having produced a successful Olympics, and their euphoria from Italy’s win in Sunday’s World Cup final was still palpable. Indeed, Vaciago, who seemed to delight in making playful, provocative comments, noted that the French soccer player who missed his penalty kick in the World Cup final plays for Juventus, Torino’s top team. "This, too, was part of the Italian success," Vaciago said.

On Monday the TOROC CEO became one of the first high-level officials to publicly question some of the security measures that dampen the experience of the Games. Referring again to the soccer World Cup, Vaciago suggested Olympic organizers could learn from "the humble sport of the masses." He noted that there were up to 80,000 people in the stadiums for World Cup matches, and no "mag and bag," the electronic security devices that everyone must now go through before getting on a commercial airliner or inside an Olympic venue.

"Throw away the mag and bag," Vaciago said. "The mag and bag is completely useless."

On a roll, Vaciago also suggested that organizing 64 World Cup soccer matches was simpler than organizing the Olympic bobsled competition.

Asked about Torino’s last-minute preparations for the Games Vaciago said: "In Italy, if we do not do things at the last minute they do not succeed. It’s good luck." But he cautioned: "This is not exportable."

Another lesson Vaciago offered was, "Never listen too much to the engineers."

Vaciago was having some fun with his audience and later with Canadian reporters, but there was also a message in what he was saying. Castellani, a former mayor of Torino, provided another version of that same theme.

Organizers of future Olympic Games can learn from the experience of previous Games organizers, Castellani said, but balance that experience with intuition.

Castellani told of his time as mayor of Torino. In 1997 it was obvious the city was heading for a period of change. The car industry, which had been the basis of the Torino economy for decades, was on the way out. Hosting the Olympics was seen as an opportunity to bring some new spirit to the Piedmont region and to show the world the beauty of its mountains, lakes and wine country, its history and its culture. Castellani said he was sure that spirit had arrived when the Olympic torch reached Torino. "There was an injection of energy into the people of Torino," he said Monday.

That may be a bit of a stretch. The feeling some people got was that by the conclusion of the Games the people of Torino were fully into the Olympic experience, but at the start of the 17 days there was a bit of wait-and-see skepticism.

But that’s just one interpretation. Castellani’s more relevant message was about the motto for the Torino Games: "Passion Lives Here." It was, he said, "a kind of provocation in our city."

Torino had a reputation as a cold, somewhat grimy industrial city. It was going through a period of major change, and the mayor and other Olympic organizers challenged the people to embrace that change. Sound familiar? Part of that challenge was through the motto, Passion Lives Here.

Castellani’s conclusion Monday was the Games had helped change his city. His proof was in other Torino organizations that have adopted a new motto: "The Passion Continues."

If that motto is reality, that’s an Olympic legacy more valuable than new athletic venues or increased tourism business.