Turin Hopes Its Pricey Olympic Makeover Lasts

Times Staff Writer

The stadium that Mussolini built is fitted now with retractable plexiglass seats. Steel and glass are everywhere.

Next door, in a neighborhood better known for abandoned red-brick factories, is a sparkling new ice hockey rink (even though people here don't really play hockey). Renowned architect Arata Isozaki designed it.

And a few miles beyond, the old Fiat plant has been replaced by fancy shops and Turin's first state-of-the-art five-star hotel.

Playing host to the Olympics tends to do this to cities. They undergo miraculous, multimillion-dollar transformations; even the dowdiest of burgs become Cinderellas. But does it last? Does the overhaul bring fame and fortune to the host once the Games are over?

That is what Turin is banking on, as have so many other cities. Many here hope that when the XX Winter Olympics commence this week, Turin's image as a gray postindustrial city, the home of Fiat but not much else, will be irreversibly altered.

"We want to make Turin known for something more," said Mercedes Bresso, president of the Piedmont region, which is home to Turin. She spoke recently in her office overlooking the 16th century Piazza Castello as workers busily erected a television soundstage. "We want to make the world see that Turin is not the Detroit of Italy -- not just a factory town, but Italy's first capital, with palazzi and mountains."

Mayor Sergio Chiamparino sounded a similar note. "Turin is not like Rome or Florence or Venice. But it is a good, second-category tourist city," he said in an interview last year. "The city is changing. This is a revolution for Turin."

Turin today is attempting to reinvent itself, just as it has through the ages. For centuries, the Alpine city by the Po River was the bastion of the Savoy dynasty, the mostly French dukes and kings who ruled northern Italy from the Middle Ages. And it was the center of the Risorgimento movement, which unified Italy in 1861. Turin was the nation's first capital, until that honor was moved to Florence and later Rome.

The city found its new calling as the heart of Italy's manufacturing base, a symbol of the country's "economic miracle" after the destruction brought by World War II. Central to that was Fiat, a maker of small, cheap cars. The booming business attracted hundreds of thousands of workers from more impoverished areas, and when the company's fortunes declined in the 1980s and '90s, this city of nearly 1 million people was again thrown into crisis, forced to look for a new identity and a new livelihood.

Many city leaders see the Olympics as that lifeline for Turin, which seems to suffer from an inferiority complex, ever hoping to recapture its past glories.

"Turin has sort of felt like a loser," said Franco Borgogno, an official with the regional government. "We have to change the mentality, and that process is underway. To participate in a challenge like this [organizing the Olympics], and to overcome it, gives us certain pride and courage."

Officials budgeted about $2.1 billion to spruce up the city for the Games and make other long-term improvements, including the refurbishing or construction of eight venues and other buildings, plus the extension or repair of roadways. Overall, the Olympics will cost more than $3.6 billion, officials say.

Experts caution, however, that expecting salvation from the staging of an Olympics can be a mistake.

The results for host cities over the last several decades are mixed, said economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College.

Greece, site of the 2004 Summer Games, spent itself into a huge hole that brought the threat of European Union sanctions because member nations are supposed to limit their budget deficits. And though tourism has started to rise, numerous buildings erected for the Games sit empty today.

The 1976 Summer Games saddled Montreal with an enormous debt that it finished paying only last year, but Barcelona, by most accounts, thrived after its 1992 performance.

"If you are on the precipice of being recognized as a place tourists want to go but haven't realized your potential, then [the Olympics] can put you over the threshold," said Zimbalist, who specializes in the relation between sports and economics. "But if you are a dreary city that doesn't stack up to Sienna or Venice, then it's hard to imagine there will be a lasting impact."

Winter Games are a less extravagant affair than their summertime counterpart, and Turin officials insist they have spent wisely, integrating the old and the new in ways that will have benefits beyond Feb. 26, when the Olympics close. The Isozaki hockey rink, for example, will be used for other sports and events. Italians also point to the success of Cortina, host of the 1956 Winter Games, which remains to this day the place to ski in the Italian Alps.

What these Games will mean for Turin remains to be seen. The organizing committee is grappling with a budget shortfall; an investigation by national police of alleged financial irregularities, including contract rigging and fraud; and sluggish ticket sales.

It is not an unattractive city. Its historic center is graced with enormous plazas, belle epoque architecture, arcaded walkways and wide, straight promenades. Physically, it owes much to its French roots, baroque background and royal history.

Workers have dug a subway, created a key north-south axis to ease traffic and built world-class museums and art galleries.

"People, foreigners and even Italians, never expect to find this city as beautiful as it is," said Turin-born Andrea Carosso, an American-studies professor at the University of Turin. "The city has undergone a lot of work. What that will bring is still unclear."

Turin's latest incarnation does not sit well with everyone. Environmentalists weren't pleased with the uprooting of trees to make plazas for the Olympic crowds or the paving over of green spaces for parking lots. A real estate boom sparked by people from nearby wealthier Milan has made some housing less affordable.

"They are consuming the city," lamented Eva Biginelli, an activist with a leading environmental group.

One of the sorest points is a high-speed pan-European rail line being built through the nearby Susa Valley. Although the line, which will run from Barcelona, Spain, to Kiev, Ukraine, has nothing to do with the Olympics, emotional protests over purported environmental damage have added to the tension here.

A rash of strikes, including repeated wildcat walkouts at the national airline, Alitalia, have added to the disruptions.

Turin's days as an industrial boomtown have ebbed, and many here link the city's future to its ability to step out of the long shadow cast by Fiat and the Agnelli family, which founded and ran the auto giant. Turin was such a company town, old-timers recall, that every restaurant served meals according to the workers' schedule. When the factory shut down for holidays, the entire city shut down. There was no night life, because workers went to bed early.

The fortunes of both Fiat and the Agnellis have foundered in recent years. Until the last quarter, the company had lost money steadily since 2000. Patriarch Giovanni Agnelli, for generations the most powerful man in Italy, died in January 2003; his brother Umberto, who took over, died in 2004.

Giovanni ("Gianni," as he is still widely known) had one son, who committed suicide; Umberto's son died of cancer. That leaves Gianni's American-born, 29-year-old grandson, John Elkann, as heir apparent. He is serving as the company's deputy chairman. The only other heir, Elkann's brother, Lapo, made headlines in October when he was hospitalized for what was widely reported as a drug overdose suffered while spending the night in the company of a transvestite prostitute.

Turin today is more than Fiat, and its future depends on more than the Olympics. It also must attract high-tech and multimedia businesses, and to become a destination for tourists, artists and others.

"Every 50 years," said Enrico Salza, president of Turin's powerful Sanpaolo IMI bank, "Turin changes its hide."

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