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Matt Dunham, Associated Press
Fireworks explode Sunday during the closing ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Games in Torino. The 2010 Games will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia.

TORINO, ITALY — The old men played cards every day. I know this because I walked past them every day on my morning commute from the Politecnico Media Village to the Main Media Center.

Their venue was worn wooden tables next to a flooded bocce court at the edge of the Parco Cavalieri di Vittorio Veneto. Behind them, about a third of a mile away on the other side of the park, the Olympic caldron burned night and day, signaling the occasion of the XX Olympic Winter Games in their city.

I never once saw any of them look up from their cards to glance at the flame.

One thickset man in a heavy wool coat and a stocking cap pulled down around his ears, the Don Corleone among them, would lick his thumb and deal the cards — counterclockwise. He had a large stack of euro coins in front of him. Every day. Either he always won or he was always paying out.

I asked once, "Parla Inglese?" and one of them shrugged and said, "No capisce." That was the extent of our verbal communication, but they did not seem to mind when I'd stop to watch them play.

I wanted to hear their stories and ask what they thought of this Olympic invasion in a place they may have lived all their long lives. I imagined that they fought in Mussolini's Army in World War II, that they had been in Torino when the Allied troops swept down from the north, bombed their city and occupied Italy.

Now, men and women with rifles from 30 nations were in the north shooting at targets while wearing cross-country skis. What might they make of that?

If anything at all.

The image of those card-playing men is one I'll take home from my stay in Italy, along with memories of Lindsey Jacobellis and laid-back snowboarders and a scared-to-death Sasha Cohen and the look on the face of Park City's Ted Ligety the instant he realized he'd won a gold medal and fulfilled a lifelong dream at the age of 21.

In many ways, the Olympics are an illusion. Two billion people may tune in to watch on their televisions around the world, but at ground zero they are often an afterthought, as evidenced by miles of empty seats and wide-open highways. Either the Olympics are too expensive or too difficult to get to, even if they are in your own back yard.

Such was the case at the most recent Summer Olympics in Athens and such was the case in both Torino and the distant Alps villages where most of the competitions during the past 17 days took place.

From a purist's standpoint, the Winter Olympics probably shouldn't have been held in a city that is not a winter sports town (like Lillehammer) or an overall sports-loving place (like Salt Lake City).

The cold truth is, Torino most likely would have never hosted the Olympics if not for Salt Lake.

Sion, Switzerland, was considered a shoo-in for 2006 until Marc Hodler, the IOC member from Switzerland, ignited the Salt Lake bid scandal by suggesting some of his colleagues had received bribes from Salt Lake bidders. When the 2006 cities were voted on in 1999, at the height of the bid imbroglio, a vote for Torino was a vote against Hodler.

But the other cold truth is that the actual physical location of an Olympics isn't that important. The Games are first and foremost a television event. In the worldwide scheme of things, host cities are just another Universal Studios.

Consider that there were about 2,700 athletes in the Torino Games and 3,100 people working for NBC alone.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. No matter how far-flung the venues, how expensive the tickets or how difficult they are to get to, TV cameras will be there, delivering it all to your cozy home and with a much better view.

As Scott Hamilton, the figure-skater-turned-TV-commentator, said, "The best way to miss an Olympics is to go to an Olympics."

Still, in the end, there's nothing quite like being there, and for the places that host them, an Olympics provides a unique opportunity to show off for the world.

For all their spectator apathy, the Italians proved to be most accommodating hosts. I thoroughly enjoyed being among them and found their laid-back, non-stressful ways both enlightening — who knew Italy was the Jimmy Buffett of Europe? — and a bit infectious.

Deadline? What deadline?

Torino was the anti-Salt Lake, in a way. Whereas four years ago our nature was to bend over backward to get behind the Olympics and constantly hope our image would be seen as favorable, the Italian attitude was just the opposite. They seemed more bent on making sure life went on as normal. Not finishing certain facilities — such as the city metro system as well as parts of some of the competition venues — did not cause them to lose any sleep.

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Another image I'll take with me from my stay in Torino is stopping at a pizzeria near the hockey stadium one night at about the halfway point of the Games, when Olympic events were under way anywhere and everywhere.

As I sat at a table with a red-and-white tablecloth and ate a salami pizza, I was surrounded by two nuns, three bus drivers, two cops in uniform and the woman who ran the place. They were all drinking coffee out of tiny cups and saying "ciao" as they came and went, while behind them, the TV set behind the counter was tuned to a soccer game.

A couple of them said "ciao" to me when I left. Not one of them asked me how I was enjoying their Olympics.

Lee Benson's column has run daily during the Torino Olympics. You can e-mail him at benson@desnews.com.