Can Rocca Rev up Torino?

A new sport has taken hold in Italy ahead of the Winter Olympics, which are set to kick off in Torino on Feb. 10. Dubbed "block the torch" by locals, it pits Italy's ardent anarchists against Olympic organizers trying to generate excitement by relaying the Olympic torch across the country. So far Olympic spirit is losing. In late December, anarchists in Genoa actually blew out the flame for 20 minutes during a protest against Coca-Cola as an Olympic sponsor. On Jan. 17, environmental protesters in Venice nearly sunk the gondola carrying the eternal flame. And last week, for the 33rd time since it began winding its way to Torino from Rome on Dec. 8, the torch was not just blocked, but actually stolen in the northern town of Trento. Italian track star Eleanora Berlanda, whose turn it was to carry the torch, tussled with brutish protesters until she finally had to give up the burning bastion of Olympic spirit. "I tried to hold on to the torch but they were pulling on it, twisting my wrists," cried Berlanda after the incident. "They were very passionate about their cause."

Too bad they're the only ones. Almost all the attention leading up to the Winter Games has focused not on fierce competitions between world-class athletes like hometown ski hero Giorgio Rocca and American outlaw Bode Miller (box), but on security concerns and the Italians' predictable rush to finish up the venues on schedule. What's noticeably missing from this normally passionate country is any semblance of Olympic spirit. Admittedly, that will be easier to muster once the Olympic cauldron is finally lit. But with virtually no publicity, very few showy stars and a notable lack of fresh scandals, Torino's 2006 Winter Olympics could truly be remembered as the Forgotten Games.

No one is more disheartened by the lack of enthusiasm than Italy's Olympic hopefuls. "It's a pity that we aren't talking enough about the Olympics in Italy," laments champion Rocca, who is favored to win the gold in the slalom. "The people aren't even going to know the names of those they should support." As Italy's best chance for Olympic fame, Rocca is also the country's best hope for whipping up enthusiasm--especially after recent wins against both Miller and Austrian powerhouse Hermann Maier. But so far, Rocca's promise has done little to boost interest.

It's not for lack of trying. He is a veritable star, and at the nearly ancient age of 30, says he has finally found what he calls "the key to skiing without mistakes." He won his fifth straight World Cup title on Jan. 15, elevating him to the status of his predecessor and Italy's favorite Olympic son, Alberto Tomba, who holds the record at seven straight wins. But in modern Olympics, being a good athlete is not enough, and though handsome, Rocca, a former carabiniere officer, is not much of a showman--especially when compared with "La Bomba," whose antics were as much fun to watch off the slopes as on. "I hear from Alberto a lot and he's given me some great advice," Rocca says. "But I'll never make the same impact he did." Rocca comes off as a bit wide-eyed, crediting his hypnotist for helping him "cut out the mistakes." He attributes his recent string of wins to the birth of his first son in November. It's all sweet, but not the stuff to sell tickets to the giant slalom.

It doesn't help that Italy's past Olympic greats are virtually absent from this year's Games. Isolde Kostner, who won 15 World Cup titles and landed a silver in Salt Lake City in women's downhill, announced her pregnancy and subsequent retirement in early January. Her younger cousin Carolina Kostner has Olympic sweetheart potential and is a favorite for a medal in women's figure skating after winning a bronze in the European Championships. But figure skating remains a relatively unknown field for most Mediterraneans.

Of course, there's still time for a good scandal to spark interest. In 2002, the Salt Lake City Games were overshadowed by charges that Olympic bid contenders had --paid off IOC members to win the Games. And who can forget the vote-trading scandal among pairs-figure-skating judges which saw both Russia and Canada win gold in the same competition? "Maybe things have actually gone too smoothly so far," says Gianni Merlo, a sports columnist with La Gazzetta dello Sport and president of the International Sports Press Association (AIPS), who has covered 16 Olympic Games. "When you think about it, nothing has really gone wrong in these Games."

Any one of a number of unfortunate events could make these Games memorable. Maintenance workers with the country's flagship airline, Alitalia, have threatened to strike the week before the Games begin, which would disrupt air travel across the country. Italian anti-globalization anarchists could ratchet up their protests; though the government has promised one security official per athlete, it can do little to block protesters outside the city center or along the roads to the alpine events. Political extremists, who are looking for an audience ahead of the country's elections in April, may use the global stage as a podium for their complaints. And as always, the threat of terrorism looms large.

But the best hope is that the competition itself will finally rouse the crowds. Every Games features an untimely spill, a split-second finish, a come-from-behind underdog having the run of his life. If Rocca can't spark interest, maybe Ghana's long-shot skier, Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, will. As Merlo aptly points out, "Who cares if there are 1,000 or 3,000 spectators on the slopes? To the athlete, who this is really all about, an Olympic win is still the ultimate victory." For Torino, success will come in the form of a safe and smooth Games--with a bit of buzz to boot.