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Olympics open in spectacular style

The Olympics rings sparkle as the 20th Winter Games get underway in Turin

TURIN, Italy -- The 20th Winter Olympics has got under way in Torino with an opening ceremony filled with "rhythm, passion and speed" to showcase Italian culture.

The spectacular show heralds the start of 16 days of competition, four years after the last Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

A capacity crowd of 35,000 and a television audience of up to two billion worldwide watched the ceremony.

Italian cross-country skier Stefania Belmondo, 36, lit the Olympic flame.

Belmondo, Italy's most decorated winter Olympian, won 10 medals in her career including two golds.

She crowned a final torch relay around the stadium, started by Italian skiing great Alberto Tomba.

Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi declared the Games open, while International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge urged the athletes to "inspire and motivate the future generations".

"Athletes, you are role models. Please compete in a spirit of fair play, mutual understanding and respect, and above all please refuse doping," said Rogge.

"Our world today is in need of peace, tolerance and brotherhood and the values of the Olympic Games can deliver these to us.

"May the Games be held in peace and in the true spirit of the Olympic truce. Show us how sport unites by overcoming political, religious and language barriers and you will show us the world we all long for."

Italian gymnastic legend Yuri Chechi got the ceremony underway

The extravaganza, combining choreography, music and light, began with Yuri Chechi, one of Italy's greatest gymnasts, swinging a mighty hammer onto a bronze anvil.

This was followed by a host of dancers, flaming skaters and music from giant alpenhorns in a homage to mountain life.

A moving ski jumper made up of hundreds of volunteers preceded the unveiling of the five Olympic rings, which served as a backdrop to the parade of about 2,500 athletes from 84 countries.

According to Olympic tradition, Greece led the athletes into the arena, followed by Albania - one of a number of one-man teams - making their Winter Games debut.

Cold War foes South and North Korea marched together in a show of unity for the first time at a Winter Olympics.

The strong Austrian team were headed by skier Renate Goestchl, speed skater Chris Witty carried the American flag, while host nation Italy entered last, led by skater Carolina Kostner, to a tumultuous reception.

The athletes took up seats in a hollow in the middle of the stage to enjoy the rest of the ceremony, which included precision flag-waving and theatrical segments from Italian history, myth and the future.

Veteran Italian actress Sophia Loren, 71, was one of eight illustrious women who carried in the Olympic flag.

Italian skier Giorgio Rocca, dubbed the new Tomba, took the Olympic oath on behalf of all the athletes.

The ceremony, which also included a eulogy for peace by John Lennon's wife Yoko Ono, ended with a performance by Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and a spectacular firework display.

About 6,100 volunteers helped stage the event, which along with the closing ceremony, is reported to have cost £28.5m.

Competition gets underway on Saturday when four gold medals will be awarded in biathlon, nordic combined, women's freestyle moguls and men's speed-skating.

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