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Tomba challenged by Belmondo for Olympic torch-lighting honors

Tomba challenged by Belmondo for Olympic torch-lighting honors{mosimage}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 Torino 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 Torino, and would be a popular choice among locals. Lighting the flame could make up for her emotional decision to withdraw from competition.

”It would be a great honor as well as an incredible emotion, almost like winning a medal,” said Belmondo, who also won four World Championships 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 longshot recently in Torino 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.

– The Associated Press

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