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Magic of Turin just a click of the remote away

Real figure skating, gorgeous scenery among attractions of Winter Games

Yet another reality TV series is set to launch this week, one that promises endless intrigue, nonstop action, heart-breaking defeats and plenty of golden moments. No, it’s not the return of “The Apprentice,” but rather the ultimate reality show: The Winter Olympics.

Forget “American Idol” and “Survivor.” How much more real does it get than staring down the face of an ice-covered mountain, hoping to turn years of hard work and training into Olympic gold with one downhill run? Or having your chances at victory wiped out because of one slip on the ice during your short-track speedskating race? Folks, this is about as real as it gets.

OK, you're thinking, maybe it’s reality programming, but come on, it’s still sports. Yeah? Well, so what! We aren’t talking balls and bases, touchdowns and tackles. This is your every-four-years kind of sports. Ice. Snow. Glitter. Firearms. What’s not to like?

But since you are still probably skeptical, we offer you a few reasons to tune in at some point during the 17-day festival in Turin, Italy.

Try ‘Skating with Professionals’
Why on Earth would you want to watch Dave Coulier or Bruce Jenner (the gods on Mt. Olympus are weeping at just the thought of that) attempt to figure skate when you can watch people who actually know how? Sure, there is some pleasure in watching and hoping that Kristy Swanson does a face plant. But guess what? Olympic skaters fall, too! And when they do, it’s at much higher speeds and from greater heights.

But let’s forget about the sick train-wreck scenario. The Winter Olympics features the finest skating athletes on the ice. And they are athletes. If you don’t think it takes athleticism, strength and skill to perform a tandem double Salchow, turn in to NBC on Feb. 11 and watch the pairs short program. Then watch “Skating with Celebrities.” End of discussion.

At the Olympics, the women rule the ice, at least ratings-wise. Skating for the United States at the Turin Games are reigning national champion Sasha Cohen, runner-up Kimmie Meissner and three-time Olympian Michelle Kwan. Kwan was forced to petition for a spot on the team after a groin injury kept her from competing in the Olympic trials.

‘I never had the training to back up my talent,’ U.S. figure skater Sasha Cohen says of her earlier yearsFrancois Mori / AP

If Cohen is at her best, she has a good chance of claiming gold. “I definitely want to feel like there’s no regrets, that I’ve put in every ounce of training that I could,” Cohen told the Associated Press. “I want to skate amazing. I want an Olympic gold medal. It’s been a dream of mine. It’s not about anyone else,” she added, “it’s about me and what I want to get done there.” You go, girl!

Her chief rival for the Olympic title is Russia’s Irina Slutskaya.  Slutskaya's been virtually unbeatable for the past two years and recently won her seventh European champion, a record.

The spins, jumps, sparkling costumes and staggering talent will be on display in prime time on Feb. 21 and Feb. 23.

Kings of the Mountain
Every reality show has its jackass, the one character who steals the spotlight with outlandish behavior but deftly plays the game to win. Those characters also can be found at the Turin Games. The current champion of talent and “what-the-blank?” moments is reigning World Cup skiing champion Bode Miller. In case you haven’t been reading the sports pages — or the news pages for that matter — Miller is an unconventional guy. He told “60 Minutes” that he has competed in World Cup races while drunk or, at the very least, hung over. In a downhill race, skiers literally throw themselves down the mountain, occasionally exceeding speeds of 80 miles per hour. He also said he doesn’t care about winning titles or being rich. So in Bode’s case, unconventional translates to crazy.

But the dude also is crazy talented. He skis all five alpine disciplines (downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and combined), greatly increasing his chances of winning gold — or taking a spectacular fall. And waiting in the wings to pounce is U.S. teammate Daron Rahlves. Rahlves has periodically beaten Miller on the World Cup circuit, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise if he caught him in Turin.

FILE ** Bode Miller of the United States stands on the podium after clinching the second place in a alpine ski men's World Cup combined race, in Kitzbuehel, Austria, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006.Claudio Scaccini / AP

Another familiar theme on TV, and in sports, is comeback stories. Everybody loves the tale of the guy who overcomes huge odds to ride again. Look no further than Austria’s Hermann Maier to provide that story. The double Olympic champion nearly lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident in August 2001. After months of rehab, he returned to the slopes in January 2003 and won a super-G race just two weeks after his return. The Hermanator said he would be happy to win just one race in Turin. He is among the favorites in the super-G, downhill and giant slalom.

If you want to check out the Kings of the Mountain, you can see the downhill on Feb. 12, the combined on Feb. 14, the super-G on F eb. 18, the giant slalom on Feb. 20 and the slalom on Feb. 25 on NBC.

We Are The World
The modern Olympics were created to celebrate the best in human athletic achievement and to promote the ideal of peace among nations. The only thing that has derailed the Games was world war. Well, it is, after all, an ideal.

Turin 2006 Winter Olympic games mascots Neve, left, and Gliz, wave prior to the start of the Italian major league soccer match between Inter Milan and Palermo at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006.Luca Bruno / AP

The world comes to Turin on Feb. 10 for 17 days of athletics, along with crass commercialism, nationalistic hype and endless chatter from “experts.” The Games officially begin with the Opening Ceremonies, during which there will be music, dancing, theatrics and, with these games being in Italy, fashion. According to the official Torino 2006 Web site (which bears the slogan “Passion lives here”), Giorgio Armani will be among the guests at the opening festivities. And let's not forget Neve and Gliz, the official mascots of the Games. You can be sure these wannabe Stay Puft Marshmallow Men will don some skates and join in the festivities.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the Games is watching the athletes, bedecked in their finest fitnesswear, marching into the stadium. Forget about the yapping announcers and watch the incredible look of joy and excitement on the faces of the athletes. They have worked for years to don that Roots Opening Ceremonies sweater and they are living the moment, and the dream. Now that is reality.

Equally exciting is the moment when the torch relay ends and the Olympic flame is brought into the stadium. The torch relay dates back to the ancient Games, when runners in relay teams used to carry torches and pass them off to the next runner. The flame derives from Greek mythology. According to myth, Prometheus stole sacred fire from the gods and brought it to Earth. The mythic flame has become a symbol of human reason, freedom and creativity. All righty, then.

Regardless, it is still exciting when the cauldron is lit by that final mystery torchbearer. George Clooney has a home in the nearby Lakes region. Could he be that final bearer? Nah. Most likely, it will be somebody of great importance in Italy, one that most Americans have never heard of.

Just remember, when the torch is lit, the world, theoretically, is gathered in peace. Did we mention the Olympic movement is an ideal?

Bella, bella!The Games are being held in Turin (or as the Italians call it, Torino). Turin, home to Fiat, is the Detroit of Italy. It also is known for its cafes, grand homes, stunning mountain scenery and beautiful tree-lined boulevards, which fill with Torinese each night for their passegiata, or evening stroll.

Turin is in the Piedmont region of Italy, which is renowned for its wines, most notably its rich Barolos, Barbarescos and sparking spumante from nearby Asti.

It may not offer a multitude of tourist destinations like Rome, Venice or Florence, but it has one very important relic — the shroud of Turin! Christians believe the shroud was the cloth used to wrap Jesus after he was removed from the cross. If you actually travel to the Cappella della Santa Sindone, don't expect to see the shroud. It's kept under lock and key, away from harsh light.

But who needs to travel to Italy when you can just turn to NBC and watch all the pleasures and treasures of Turin and Piedmonte on display. In addition to regular segments on the city during NBC's extensive Games coverage, the “Today” show also will broadcast from the host city throughout the Games. It will almost be like you were there. OK, no it won't, but it's as good as you're going to get.

Brooms and rifles

FILE ** Canada's Mellisa Hollingsworth-Richards speeds down the track at the Skeleton World Cup women's event in Sigulda, Latvia, in this Dec. 14, 2005 photo.Roman Koksarov / AP

The Winter Olympics are a smorgasbord of unusual sports. Ever wondered what it would be like to toboggan face-down, head-first along a chute of sheer ice? Then skeleton is for you (no, it has nothing to do with a bag of bones, but competitors certainly are suspectible to fractures).

Have an affinity for cleaning products? Break out your broom and tune in to curling. Who knew you could turn sweeping ice in front of a stone into a sport? And why would you? NBC's curling experts will be happy to tell you during their coverage.

Ever felt the need to do a little hunting in deep snow? With skis on? Then you'll love biathlon.

In addition to these hidden gems, there is speed skating (Eric Heiden is still one of the greatest athletes to ever don a skin-tight racing suit), bobsled, ski jumping and good old fashioned hockey, eh.

Have you ever been cruising through the channels on a cold, rainy Saturday and come across something that you watched for hours? Some crazy gadget show on Discovery or tracking the migratory patterns of gulls on National Geographic? With sports such as luge and Nordic combined, you can easily find yourself thinking, three hours later, what am I watching?

You can do all of your watching on the NBC network (NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Telemundo). Tune in for the travel. Or for the skating. Or a little bit of Bode. It's the ultimate reality programming, and like “Project Runway” or "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” there's a little something for everyone.

Denise Hazlick used to be Olympics editor at MSNBC.com. She will love watching the Games while others work hard to cover them.