Let The Games Begin!

Chris Witty carries the flag for the United States as they enter the stadium during the opening ceremony for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Friday, Feb. 10, 2006.
A dazzled, cheering audience danced on their chairs in the winter cold Friday night and the opening ceremony of the Winter Games became one giant house party.

Passion was the show's theme and passion was what poured from the audience, right up to the arrival of the Olympic torch, carried by skiing hero Alberto "La Bomba" Tomba, who ran up the stage steps and handed it off to a succession of Italian medal winners.

Ultimately it was Stefania Belmondo, a three-time gold medal winner in cross-country skiing, who touched the flame to a wire that ignited fireworks and lit the Olympic caldron.

The cheering crowd screamed their delight — just one of the many times they did so throughout the three-hour show.

The parade of nations prompted a love fest while more than 2,500 athletes arrived to the accompaniment of chest-thumping disco ranging from "YMCA" by the Village People to "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor.

Italy, as host country, appeared last and brought down the house. Dressed in fur-trimmed coats, against the pulsating, popular Italian pop song "Una Donna Per Amico" ("A Woman for A Friend") the crowd jumped to its feet, dancing and shouting and ringing souvenir cow bells provided by show organizers.

Second only to the crowd's reaction to Italy was the roaring welcome given to the delegation from the United States. Around the packed stadium, fans stood and clapped as "Daddy Cool" blared through the loudspeakers.

More than 200 U.S. athletes, wearing white coats and hats of blue and red, waved and blew kisses to the cheering audience. Giant video screens showed first lady Laura Bush smiling broadly.

In related developments:

  • The number of cross-country skiers suspended at the Turin Olympics climbed to 12 Friday, with the athletes hastening to explain that their abnormally high hemoglobin levels were caused by dehydration and adjusting to high altitude — not blood doping. Four more skiers received five-day competition bans, joining eight who were suspended Thursday — including two Americans and a former gold medalist from Germany. While some will miss the men's and women's pursuit event on Sunday, all will serve their suspensions in time to be cleared for possible competition. There is no proof that the athletes did anything wrong: Hemoglobin, the oxygen-transporting part of red blood cells that increases endurance, can indeed be raised in innocent ways.
  • Denmark is looking to its tiny Olympic delegation to provide a brief distraction from the country's worst international crisis since World War II. Five women curlers represent the small Scandinavian country in the Winter Olympics — and they're not letting outrage over the Prophet Muhammad drawings interfere with their medal hopes. "They do not allow this sad case to affect their concentration," Jesper Frigast Larsen, head of the Danish delegation said by phone from Turin on Friday. "It is not something that has affected their daily lives down here."
  • Laura Bush arrived at the Turin Olympics with a rooting interest. The first lady led the U.S. delegation at Friday's opening ceremonies and was looking forward to watching fellow Texan Chad Hedrick begin his bid for the first of five gold medals in speedskating. "I hear he's a favorite, and he's a favorite of mine," Mrs. Bush said. Mrs. Bush watched the opening ceremonies seated between her daughter, Barbara, and Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
  • A court agreed that Zach Lund is no drug cheat. Then it dashed the U.S. slider's Olympic dream anyway — and along with it, the turmoil-wracked skeleton team's best hope for gold. Lund was banned from the Turin Olympics on Friday for taking a common hair-restoration pill with an ingredient that can be used to mask steroids. The Court of Arbitration for Sport — while saying it believes Lund did not cheat — ruled he should serve a one-year suspension anyhow, retroactive to Nov. 10 and enforced immediately.
  • Italy's interior minister said Friday there is no sign that international terrorist groups threaten the Winter Olympics, but he did not rule out an improvised attack. "There are no indications of an international terrorist threat against the Olympics," said Giuseppe Pisanu, adding that neither Italy's intelligence agencies nor foreign agencies cooperating with Rome had received any such signs.
  • Though mostly genial and nonviolent, activists have dismayed the Olympic establishment by turning the Turin Winter Games more so than any of its predecessors into an all-purpose target for protests. Fast food, smog, U.S. foreign policy, the Olympics' sponsorship by multinational corporations all have been denounced by protesters using the games as a stage to vent their gripes. One of the Olympics' prime symbols of togetherness, the torch relay, has been forced into a route change three times in the last week because of protests mostly directed at a regional high-speed rail project.
  • Pope Benedict XVI told Turin's cardinal in a message that he will keep the athletes and spectators at the Winter Games in his prayers.