In Turins historic Piazza Castello a huge clock counts the days and hours until 10 February 2006, when the Olympic torch will make its way into the newly-refurbished Olympic stadium. In two futuristic pavilions in a nearby square, local residents and visitors can learn more about the facelift being given to the arcaded and architecturally-elegant, but slightly austere, northern Italian city. Despite the decline of its population and of its major employer, the Fiat automobile company, Turin is in the process of reinventing itself and of coming up with an alluring post-industrial identity. Jobs these days are to be found in the telecommunications, industrial design, avionics and petrochemicals sectors, but also in tourism. The Winter Games, one of the worlds most important sporting events and which attract national and international sponsors, visitors and media, are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show the world just what the city has to offer.

Turins wide-ranging Olympic revamp includes the renovation of many sporting and residential structures, as well as the building of complexes such as the 12,000-seat ice-hockey stadium. The major sporting venues, split between the city (for the ice events) and the Susa Valley in the Piedmont Alps about 70 km to the north (for the snow events), are almost all completed. A e360 million public works package also includes a new metro system, airport expansion, the widening of one of the citys main arteries and the building of car parks.

The two city-based competition venues that will probably solicit the most attention are the stadio comunale and the Palavela. The former, a football stadium built under Mussolini and inaugurated in 1933, is where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held. The latter was originally constructed for the Italia 1961 exhibition and fast became a landmark in the city due to its cast-concrete outer shell, shaped like a three-point sail. Italian architect Gae Aulenti was entrusted with the plans to renovate the edifice and a figure-skating arena has now been built below its undulating roof. The venue will host short-track speed skating and the hugely popular figure-skating events. It was successfully road-tested during the European figure-skating championships last January.

The Winter Games will comprise seven sports, 15 disciplines and 84 specialties played in eight different competition sites in and around Turin. An estimated 2,500 athletes representing 85 countries, 1,400 coaches, 650 judges and umpires and 1.5 million spectators are expected to convene in the city and outlying areas to take part in the 20th edition of the Winter Olympiad. A total of 10,000 journalists will cover the event.

However, as with many of its Olympic predecessors, not everything has gone to plan. Problems have included a budget shortfall of almost e180 million, difficulties with the organisation of transport to and from the competition sites, a lack of interest from the media and the Italian government and difficulties with construction of some of the venues.

In terms of construction, in 2002 asbestos was found on the planned site of the bobsleigh track in the mountains at Sauze D'Oulx. Building was halted for over seven months until a new location was found at Cesana, just outside Turin. Then, at the beginning of February this year, officials had to cancel a luge world cup event on the new track because it was deemed too dangerous after two athletes suffered serious injuries and others experienced alarming crashes. The course is currently being modified. Whats more, construction of the hockey arena was stalled while two unexploded bombs from world war two were removed.

The Turin Olympic budget saga, as it has been dubbed by the local press, has been interpreted as a sign of the citys failure to attract, or hold on to, prominent sponsors and sponsorship deals. After political infighting between the government and the Turin organising committee for the Olympic games (TOROC), prime minister Silvio Berlusconi finally signed an agreement in June to fill the gap in the 1.2 billion operating budget.

Yet it is transport to and from the different events that promises to be the organisers biggest headache. TOROC is confident that this will not be a problem, pointing to the new metro line in town, the rail services to the mountains and the Olympic shuttles that will ferry spectators and athletes between the different mountain sites, as well as a free round-the-clock bus service. However, criticism just keeps coming. At the end of July the boss of the German ski federation and the head of Germanys bobsleigh and luge federation said publicly that the transport system was unworkable, training facilities unacceptable and accommodation far too expensive. German ski federation boss Thomas Pfueller has said that he has arranged for a private shuttle service for his athletes to and from competition sites. Otherwise, I have no idea how everyone can be transported in the desired time, he said. The athletes cant wait 15 minutes at a bus stop at minus 15 [temperatures].

TOROC remains optimistic. A campaign to attract 20,000 volunteers to help run the event has received double the expected applications, ticket sales have reached over the 60 per cent mark for many disciplines and in some cases demand has outstripped supply.

The organisers aims are simple, according to Mary Villa, head of international media relations for TOROC. They are to offer truly Italian games that represent Italy as it was yesterday, as it is today and as it will be in the future: its culture, history and traditions accompanied by innovation, technology, design and style. Only time, and the actual games, will tell if the city, region and organising committee can pull this off.

Further information on the games, including ticket details,

is available at www.torino2006.org.