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'Magnificent' Games sent off in style
Fireworks and confetti -- an Italian invention -- filled the sky as Torino bid farewell to the Games.


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• Special: Winter Olympics 2006


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TORINO, Italy (CNN) -- Torino bid farewell to the Winter Olympics in much the same way as it greeted them: with a spectacular celebration featuring at times bizarre images mixed with an overriding sense of fun.

With the world-famous Carnival of Venice in full swing on the eastern side of northern Italy, the capital of the north-west sent off the Games with its own decadent party featuring acrobats, clowns -- and a touch of burlesque.

In the crowd, spectators donned devil or angel masks while the athletes wore red noses as they began celebrating their achievements.

For the athletes, the closing ceremony is traditionally a welcome chance to blow off the steam of the previous two weeks of dogged determination and competition at the highest level. Or at least, it is a welcome chance to do so with the full blessing of the team hierarchy.

The opening ceremony featured some occasionally surreal symbolism in welcoming athletes, officials and spectators around the globe to Torino. And after all was said and done on the snow and ice, the closing ceremony continued the Fellini-esque theme.

It even featured an intruder who stole his way on stage only to shout: "Passion lives here", the motto of the Games, before being whisked away by police. International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge said the Olympics had been "truly magnificent."

The ceremony had opened with a clown dressed in white and black entering the stadium on horseback. The colors may have been a nod to the local soccer powerhouse Juventus, currently atop the national league, but the relevance of the horse was anyone's guess. A symbol of the club's elevated level in the competition, perhaps?

This was followed with clowns on swings or swiveling about in giant rings, acrobats suspended high above the stage, ballerinas, someone on stilts jumping rope and dancers dressed as Tarot cards. Yes, Tarot cards.

But even if all the symbolism was not always immediately decipherable, the sheer scale of the pageantry and color of the event was dazzling in its splendor.

And every now and then, a recognizable emblem of the region emerged. At one stage, a convoy of clowns sped around on vintage Italian scooters and tiny Fiat 500s. It is one of the smallest cars ever mass-made and the brainchild of the local company that was for decades the lifeblood on the Piedmont economy.

But when Fiat fell on hard times, the local economy followed suit.

"Over the last few years, we became poorer and poorer, thousands of people were laid off and we were forgotten by the rest of Italy, left to rot in a corner," said Pietro Airaudo, 72, at a cafe opposite an Olympic venue.

"Now, the world has come to us and realized that Turin is a place they like to be. Even we had stopped believing that." The ceremony certainly exuded the confidence of a city that has found its feet once more, even including moments of pure theatrical parody.

Throughout the stadium's aisles a trampish flower seller -- a traditional figure of carnivals -- was chased by a posse of Swiss guards. In what was dubbed the "carnival court", a center stage box filled with a mock-buffoonish royal entourage sat taking it all in, a gentle nudge at the sides of the VIP delegates present.

Then, to the strains of renowned Italian singalong classics such as "Volare" and "That's Amore", the athletes entered the stadium. Once assembled, they had the best seats in the house to the ceremony's most spellbinding moment.

From the center of the stage, a powerful stream of air was sent though a vertically positioned wind tunnel, allowing acrobats to hover in mid-air. One by one, all clad in white, they hovered gracefully in mid-air as ethereal music played in accompaniment. One was on a snowboard; another was on skis.

The Olympic flag was then lowered and carried to the stage, where it was presented to the Sam Sullivan, mayor of Vancouver, the host city for the next Games in 2010.

Sullivan had the flag inserted into a slot in the wheelchair he has used since he was 19, enabling him to spin and the chair and thus wave the flag. The crowd roared its approval. It was a manoeuvre, he explained, that had required intensive practise.

"There are several parking lots in Vancouver that I have been going to in the middle of the night," he said. "People have made reports to the police about strange activities happening in the parking lots. But it's just me, the mayor of Vancouver, practising my flag waving."

And with the Olympic flame extinguished soon after the lamps of 400 women dressed in flowing white robes had faded to black as Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli sang, the countdown to Vancouver's two weeks of glory had officially begun.

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