Alps full of intrigue with 100 days to go

Drug-testing fight, juicy plot lines in pre-Olympic crush


With 100 days to go until opening night, the 20th Winter Olympics is like a Broadway show, with juicy plot lines and high drama but still in the middle of its casting call.

The $3.64 billion extravaganza has the scenery of the Italian Alps and Turin's towering spire, Mole Antonelliana, a made-for-TV icon much like the Mormon Tabernacle of four years ago.

And underneath the glamour and beauty lurk the lurid subplots of cheating and doping. It wouldn't be the Olympics, after all, without a controversy or 10.

That said, it will be tough to top the histrionics of 2002 in Salt Lake City, with the cheating French figure skating judge and flawed scoring system that led to the awarding of duplicate gold medals to Canadian pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

But if one thing has the potential to dampen the Olympic flame it is Italy's strict drug law, which could result in athletes being ushered from podium to police station.

A long-running test of wills between the International Olympic Committee and the Italian government over the prosecution of drug-using athletes ended last week when the IOC blinked. But the matter is hardly resolved.

The IOC wanted the equivalent of a "get out of jail free" card for athletes to bypass a drug law enacted in 2000 that has been used to nab dirty soccer players and competitive cyclists.

Olympic officials argued that internal checks have been effective, catching two dozen athletes and stripping six of their medals at the Summer Games in Athens last year. They also promised to test 1,200 competitors in Turin, a 45 percent increase from 2002.

But Italian authorities stood their ground, and now the IOC must deal with the possibility of a public relations nightmare.

Security, the top concern in 2002 and last year, has been downplayed so far despite the July 7 bombings in London and warnings by Italy's intelligence community of a "current and concrete" threat of terrorist attacks against the Winter Games.

Salt Lake organizers spent $310 million on security for the first post-9/11 Olympics, and their Athens counterparts spent $1.4 billion. Italian officials have refused to disclose their security budget and manpower.

"The best way to ensure security is not to talk about it," said Mario Pescante, a government minister and Olympics supervisor. "What I can say is that all the funds requested have been provided. We are preparing very well but it is not possible to be 100 percent secure."

Like Salt Lake and Athens, Turin organizers are grappling with a budget shortfall - $44.5 million so far. The situation is likely to worsen if the cash-strapped government follows through with its plan to cut $19.24 million from its Olympic budget.

But the bottom line of the Winter Games is never the bottom line once the caldron is lighted and the athletes take center stage. With the season's international competitions just beginning, it's hard to say now who will attract the limelight and enjoy the public's adulation during two weeks that begin Feb. 10.

Will U.S. figure skaters come up empty-handed for the first time since the 1936 Olympics?

Can Bode Miller, as dangerous in a news conference as he is on the slopes, become the first American man since Tommy Moe in 1994 to win an Alpine skiing event?

Is bobsledder Vonetta Flowers, the first black athlete to strike winter gold, poised to do it again and in the process rehabilitate the image of "Mean" Jean Racine, a goat of the 2002 Games?

Does the doubles luge team of Brian Martin and Mark Grimmette, winners of bronze in 1998 and silver in 2002, have what it takes to hit for the Olympic cycle at the end of their careers?

For American fans, perhaps the greatest drama leading up to the Games is whether they have seen the last of the woman who has dominated U.S. figure skating for nearly a decade.

Michelle Kwan, 25, sat out last season's Grand Prix circuit, which had already switched to a more tamper-proof scoring system, to prepare a new program for the U.S. championships, operated under the traditional 6.0 point system. She won at home in January with a beautiful, but conservative, program. But two months later at the world championships in Moscow, she skated with all the confidence of a woman in a minefield and finished fourth.

It appears that the five-time world champion will sit out all Grand Prix events leading up to the Olympics and it remains to be seen whether she can skate her way into one of the three slots on the U.S. team in January at the national championships.

What may save her is the uncertainty elsewhere on the roster. Veteran Jennifer Kirk has retired and Angela Nikodinov has taken the year off. The always-a-bridesmaid Sasha Cohen is dealing with hip and back injuries.

Despite missing Skate America, Cohen, 21, a two-time world silver medalist, says she expects to compete at the Grand Prix event in Paris Nov. 17-20, along with Harford County's Kimmie Meissner, 16, the bronze medalist at the national championships.

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