Before declaring the Games closed, IOC president Jacques Rogge described the Torino Olympics as "truly magnificent."
"You have succeeded brilliantly in meeting your challenge," he told organizers. "Grazie, Torino."
Last week, Rogge told the Associated Press he rated the Torino Games on par with those of Nagano in 1998 for the overall experience but below Salt Lake City (2002) and Lillehammer, Norway (1994).
With the end of the Torino Games, the spotlight now shifts to Vancouver, British Columbia, host of the 2010 Games. In a relay during the closing ceremony, an Olympic flag was handed by Torino 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 closing ceremony's 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.
Among the 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.
The intended stars of the evening the athletes entered to the backdrop of "Volare," "That's Amore" and other classics.
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 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 "Nabucco."
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.
Contributing: Jemele Hill and George Diaz, The Orlando Sentinel
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