TURIN, Italy - Turin's Olympics, a topsy-turvy mix of marvels and misadventures, ended appropriately with a closing-ceremony Carnevale - a circus-like celebration full of clowns and acrobats, vibrant and often dreamlike.
Fireworks, confetti and pulsating ballads filled the air. At one point, a winged snowboarder hovered high above ground, as if by magic.
Some athletes wore red clown noses Sunday night as they swarmed across the huge stage of Olympic Stadium, waving jubilantly to a backdrop of bouncy Italian songs. Many of the 35,000 spectators donned devil and angel masks in a closing ceremony doubling as the annual Carnevale festival celebrated across Italy this weekend.
Italy had an extra reason to celebrate - a brand-new national hero as HEAD:r of the first-ever medal ceremony included in a Winter Games' closing festivities. After an Olympics that often lacked star power, Italy's Giorgio di Centa filled the void with a final-day victory in the 50-kilometer cross-country race.
The crowd erupted in cheers and waved a sea of tiny Italian flags as di Centa and his fellow medalists strode to the podium. Helping bestow the medals was di Centa's sister, Manuela, an International Olympic Committee member and former cross-country medalist herself.
Before declaring the games closed, IOC president Jacques Rogge described the Turin Olympics as "truly magnificent."
"You have succeeded brilliantly in meeting your challenge," he told organizers. "Grazie, Torino."
"We've done it," exulted Valentino Castellani, the organizing committee chief.
While Castellani spoke, an intruder approached the microphone and shouted, "Passion lives in Torino" before being whisked away by security officers. Police said the man was Spanish; he was taken into custody for questioning.
The spotlight then shifted to Vancouver, host of the 2010 Games, with the raising of Canada's Maple Leaf flag and a sonorous rendition of "O, Canada" by British Columbia-born opera star Ben Heppner. In a relay, an Olympic flag was handed by Turin Mayor Sergio Chiamparino to Rogge and then to Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan.
A quadriplegic since breaking his neck skiing at 19, Sullivan was unable to grasp the flag pole himself. Instead, he had fitted his motorized wheelchair with a cylinder to hold the flag and spun around in it several times to make the flag flutter, to the crowd's delight.
The lighthearted, often lyrical pageantry opened with a white-and-black clad clown on horseback entering from beneath the giant Olympic rings at one end of the stadium.
A dizzying array of circus acts, parades and carnival shenanigans followed - clowns on swings and swiveling in large hoops, ballerinas and tumblers, acrobats dangling high above the stage from ribbons and rings, a stilt walker jumping rope, dancers dressed as Tarot cards. One convoy of clowns was equipped with vintage Italian motor scooters and pint-sized Fiat 500s, one of the smallest cars ever mass-produced.
Throughout, bits of burlesque unfolded in the stadium's entryways and aisles as a vagabond flower seller - a traditional carnival figure - was chased by an ever-growing squad of Swiss guards. Watching it all was the so-called carnival court, a buffoonish royal entourage seated in a center stage box intended to gently mock the VIP seating of various Olympic dignitaries.
Among the real-life VIPs attending were Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who waited until the final day to make his first visit to the games, and a U.S. delegation including former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and car-racing great Mario Andretti. Berlusconi was greeted with a mix of cheers and jeers when he was introduced.
The intended stars of the evening - the athletes - entered to the backdrop of "Volare," "That's Amore," and other classics. Among the flag-bearers were several gold medal winners, including U.S. speedskater Joey Cheek, Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko and Canadian speedskater Cindy Klassen, who won a games-high five medals.
Once seated in the stadium's lower deck, the athletes had a prime view of perhaps the ceremony's most magical moment.
Out of a ring in the center of the stage, a hidden, vertical wind tunnel was positioned to send up a blast of air powerful enough to lift winged, white-clad performers high in midair to hover like slow-gliding birds. One after another, to ethereal music, these flying humans rose gracefully and floated in the spotlight, then descended - one of them, incredibly, on a snowboard; another on skis.
Soon afterward, the Olympic flag, aloft since the start of the games, was lowered and carried out slowly by eight all-time Italian sports greats, including boxer Nino Benvenuti and skier Gustavo Thoeni. A children's choir sang Verdi's beautiful chorus "Va, Pensiero" from the opera "Nubucco."
Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli followed, and roughly 400 lamp-carrying women in white gowns drifted across the stage. Their lamps slowly extinguished and then, suddenly, the huge Olympic flame high above the stadium went out as well.
Any wistfulness was quickly submerged in a din of fireworks and music, some performed by Latin pop sensation Ricky Martin. Athletes joined the cast in dancing on the stage.
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