TURIN, Italy The clock flashed the numbers: 365 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes and 52 seconds. Fifty-one, 50, 49 ...
So began the year-to-go countdown Thursday for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
''Finally, we can breathe Olympic air in our lungs,'' said Mario Pescante, the Italian government's supervisor for the games. ''Today, we can say the games have started. We are no longer preparing for the games. We are organizing the games.''
Turin has struggled with budget, housing and transportation problems but is generally on schedule for the Feb. 10-26, 2006, Olympics. A series of test events at Olympic venues in Turin and the surrounding Alps have gone smoothly.
''We are now entering the last stretch,'' International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said. ''The last days always require an acceleration, but we have full confidence in the organizers.''
Officials turned on the official countdown clock, which ticks down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the opening ceremony at 8 p.m. a year from now. The event was attended by a dozen former winter Olympic medalists, including American speedskaters Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen and British ice dancers Jayne Torville and Christopher Dean.
''I feel a little bit emotional today,'' chief organizer Valentino Castellani said. ''I feel we are entering in the spirit of the games. It's a kind of excitement I like very much.''
Rogge marked the milestone by signing personal invitations for five of the world's 202 national Olympic committees to attend the games in this city in Italy's northwest Piedmont region. The first invites went to Italy and neighboring Austria, San Marino, Slovenia and Switzerland.
Invitations to the other Olympic committees were sent out later Thursday from IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Countries have until May 8 to confirm their participation in the games, the first winter Olympics in Italy since Cortina D'Ampezzo in 1956.
The IOC expects a Winter Olympics-record 80 nations to send teams to Turin, three more than competed at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. A total of 2,500 athletes are expected to take part.
''This symbolic moment is a boost for all the stakeholders in the Olympic movement, especially for the athletes,'' Rogge said. ''They have only 365 days of training left.''
Pescante handed Rogge a letter offering guarantees from Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government that the organizing committee's $196 million budget shortfall would be covered. Details of the financial package still have to be worked out.
Pescante said Rogge replied, ''The word of the Italian government is good enough for me.''
Castellani, who briefed the IOC executive board on games planning, said he was urged ''not to lose the sense of urgency.''
The IOC expressed concern about Italy's anti-doping legislation, under which athletes can face criminal charges for possessing or using performance-enhancing drugs. That could raise the possibility of police raiding the athletes' village during the games.
The IOC stressed that Olympic anti-doping rules should be respected during the games. Pescante said he was working to amend the law in Parliament; otherwise the government could pass an exemption for the games.
Turin officials also briefed the IOC on plans for the opening and closing ceremonies, which are a tightly guarded secret.
''I believe it is going to be magnificent,'' said Jean-Claude Killy, the former French Olympic ski champion who serves as the IOC's overseer of the Turin Games. ''I think we are going to see Italy at its best. It could be magic.''
Also Thursday, the IOC board recommended that Kim Un-yong be expelled from the organization because of corruption charges in South Korea. He would be the highest-ranking delegate kicked out of the IOC.
Kim, an IOC vice president under suspension since last year, violated ethical principles and ''seriously tarnished the reputation of the Olympic movement,'' the IOC ethics commission said.
A final decision goes to the full IOC general assembly, which meets in July in Singapore. A two-thirds vote of the 100-plus members is required for expulsion.
Kim has maintained his innocence and called the charges politically motivated.
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