Italians' passion opens Olympics

TURIN, Italy -- Passion, pageantry, pyrotechnics and Pavarotti marked the opening of the 20th Winter Olympics here last night.

Kicked off by Italian gymnast Yuri Chechi and wrapped up by Italian opera icon Luciano Pavarotti, the three-hour celebration at Stadio Olimpico had many of the 35,000 people dancing on their chairs as 2,500 athletes were welcomed in with '80s dance hits.

Led by flag-bearer Danielle Goyette, most of Canada's 196-member contingent drew a roar of approval when they entered the stadium in white parkas with red trim, white puffy pants and beige sheepskin hats complete with earflaps.

Only the delegations from the U.S. and host Italy came close to the same size.

Many of the Canadians snapped photos, spoke on their cellphones or videotaped the scene, which included an audience wearing white smocks to represent the snow the region doesn't have right now.

Only a handful of the 80 countries represented drew louder applause than the Canadians, including the Americans and host Italians, who punctuated the traditional march of the athletes by spurring on a standing ovation.

Many athletes did not participate in the opening ceremonies because their events were scheduled for today, the first day of competition, and some have yet to arrive for their events, which are set for later in the Games. But the Canadians indicated with their attendance it was an important part of their Olympic experience.

"The greatest honour there is, I think, is the opening ceremonies," Canadian skeleton racer Jeff Pain said.

In an unusual move, three plain-clothed guards accompanied the Danish team as it entered -- a precaution stemming from recent violence by Muslims enraged by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Danish publications.

The event went off without incident.

Shortly after tunes from James Brown and an Italian version of Gloria capped off Olimpicapalooza''s deejayed house party, Italian ski legend Alberto Tomba brought the torch into the stadium for a succession of handoffs that ultimately saw two-time cross-country skiing gold medallist Stefania Belmondo touch the flame to kick off fireworks to light the cauldron.

Before Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi declared the Games open, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, asked that all athletes play fair.

"Please, compete in the spirit of fair play, mutual understanding and respect," Rogge said. "And above all, please compete cleanly by refusing doping."

Shortly after Yoko Ono brought the crowd down by mumbling something about peace, Italian actress Sophia Loren, U.S. actress Susan Sarandon and six other women carried in the Olympic flag to help declare the Games open through to Feb. 26.

Of course, none of the pomp and circumstance could end until the big man sang.

Pavarotti sang an aria from Puccini's Turandot that the tenor has turned into a signature piece, sparking an evening-ending fireworks display that had a formerly ambivalent city raging with pride.

Canada's hopes to land a record 25 medals and finish top three at these Games start this morning when gold-medal favourite Jennifer Heil competes in the moguls event.

The 196 Canadian athletes competing, shatter the previous participation record of 157 in Salt Lake City, where Canada finished fourth with a record 17 medals.