'I'm dying to be last torchbearer': Fight over top spot

TURIN, Italy -- Skiing great Alberto Tomba remains the
odds-on favorite, but regional star Stefania Belmondo is gaining
steam in her quest to light the flame at the Turin Games opening
ceremony Feb. 10.

A retired two-time Olympic champion in cross country skiing,
Belmondo makes no secret of her wishes.

"I'm dying to be the last torchbearer,'' she said.

In September, Belmondo abandoned a comeback attempt to spend
more time with her two children. She was born in Vinadio outside
Turin, and would be a popular choice among locals. Lighting the
flame could make up for her emotional decision to withdraw from

"It would be a great honor as well as an incredible emotion,
almost like winning a medal,'' said Belmondo, who also won four
world championship gold medals.
Organizing committee chief Valentino Castellani was coy about
who ultimately will have the honor.

"We are contacting people and are making progress,'' he said.
"Only a few of us know, very few, and we will not reveal who it is
before the appropriate time.''

Names of a few other famous Italians have been floated around as
possibilities, such as motorcycling champion Valentino Rossi --
Italy's most popular sports star -- but they lack a direct
connection to winter sports.

Even actor-director Roberto Benigni was mentioned as a long shot
recently in Turin daily La Stampa. Retired soccer player Roberto
Baggio also was listed.

Baggio would not be the first soccer star to light the flame at
the Winter Olympics. Frenchman Michel Platini had the honors at the
1992 Albertville Games.

Americans will take part in the torch relay in Florence on Dec.
14 when Iowa native Brandon Routh, star of the upcoming "Superman
Returns,'' hands off to New York Yankees manager Joe Torre.