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 Carnevale, the annual festival celebrated across Italy this weekend.
Italy had an extra reason to celebrate, a brand-new national hero as headliner 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.
Vocal wattage was provided by an eclectic entertainment lineup - Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Latin pop star Ricky Martin, and rocker Avril Lavigne and opera star Ben Heppner from Canada as Vancouver took the reins from Turin as host for the 2010 Winter Games.
The ceremony's cast numbered roughly 2,350, including many circus performers. Six were clad in original costumes from Federico Fellini's dazzling 1971 documentary "The Clowns."
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.
The spotlight then shifted to Vancouver and Canada, with the raising of the Maple Leaf flag and a sonorous rendition of "O, Canada" by British Columbia-born Heppner. In a relay, an Olympic flag was to be handed by Turin Mayor Sergio Chiamparino to IOC President Jacques 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 fitted his motorized wheelchair with a cylinder to hold the flag and practiced some maneuvers that would make it flutter.
Hours before the closing, Olympic officials put their stamp of approval on the games, which proceeded smoothly and won praise from athletes even while the ambiance was sometimes dampened by sparse crowds and a shortage of marquee-name performances.
"They were games of heart, of warmth, of smiles and generosity," said Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing legend who is now an IOC member. "It was Italy at its best."
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