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PIANCAVALLO, Italy — Americans stationed in northern Italy have a distinct opportunity to display some flag-waving patriotism this weekend — and catch a world-class sporting event in the process.

Tarvisio 2003 Winter Universiade, the world university winter games, is entering the final stages of an 11-day run at several sites across Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Piancavallo, a small ski village 10 miles north of Aviano Air Base, hosted the snowboarding and figure skating competitions. On Thursday, short-track skating debuted. The sport, which some compare to NASCAR on skates, will run through Sunday at the main ice rink in Piancavallo. Competition starts each day around noon and admission is free.

If many of those spectators happen to be stationed in Aviano or Vicenza, that certainly wouldn’t hurt the chances of a nine-member-strong team from the States.

“We’d love that,” said Jack Mortell, a Chicago firefigher who is the leader of the short-track skating team.

Dozens of Americans stationed at Aviano have been working behind the scenes at the games, assisting the local chapter of the Italian Alpini (mountain troop) association with various tasks.

Carla Seward, who works at the base’s Family Support Center, said it’s been harder to keep track of the American volunteers lately. A heavy snowstorm Tuesday took out the tent that officials had been using to sign people in. But volunteers say they’ve enjoyed the experience.

“You get to interact with a lot of the young athletes,” said Capt. Tony Lombardo of the 31st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, assigned to work with the 555th Fighter Squadron. “And also to work with the Alpini, a lot of whom are World War II veterans.”

Lombardo and Airman 1st Class Josh Kendall got a bonus. They were invited to the association’s lodge for a meal after helping set up and tear down the podium for an awards ceremony.

“It was great,” said Kendall, assigned to the 31st Medical Operations Squadron. “I felt really privileged to be able to meet those guys.”

Although Lombardo and Kendall weren’t able to see a lot of the sporting events, some of the volunteers have had a chance to take in the action.

Lt. Col. Larry Schwandt, the base’s inspector general, and his wife, Kathy, participated in a few surveillance patrols with the Alpini.

“It amounted to walking around with the Alpini and looking for suspicious stuff, which we didn’t see any of,” Larry Schwandt said.

But they had some time to check out some of the men’s figure skating. Larry Schwandt joked that the French judging didn’t stand out and didn’t generate controversy like it did at last year’s Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

“We weren’t sitting by the judges,” he said, laughing at the question. “But the scores didn’t seem to be out of line.”

Steven Roush, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the delegation head for Piancavallo and the nearby village of Claut, said the highlight of the games from the American view has been a silver medal in women’s figure skating won by Angela Lien. That an American would win a medal in the event seemed unlikely, he said, since most of the top U.S. skaters were at the national championships in Texas.

Mortell wouldn’t predict how the short-track skaters will fare.

“We’ve got a pretty solid team,” he said. “But this is a world-class competition. We see this as a good step toward the Olympics.”

One of the favorites, Canadian Jeff Scholten, wasn’t making any predictions either.

“We’ll find out,” he said, standing with the Canadian eight-person squad. Several members of his team were trading pins with athletes from other countries while they waited for the skating rink to open.

Mortell said many of those competing would probably represent their countries in the next Winter Olympics. Those games will be held in 2006 in Turin — several hours’ drive to the west.

He said the American skaters’ only disappointment with the games so far was not being able to find peanut butter in the local stores. There’s plenty, of course, on American military bases.

So fans who don’t want to bring flags might pack a jar of Skippy.

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