TURIN, Feb 27 (Reuters) Ballerinas and brides, aerial acrobats and cartwheeling clowns celebrated the close of Turin's Winter Games yesterday in a cacophony of music and mayhem drawing on the Italian tradition of Carnival.
Coinciding with Italy's Mardi Gras weekend, carnival combined with the circus to close a Games that Olympic chiefs hailed as a success, pushing memories of a doping scandal deep into the background.
A roar shook the Stadio Olimpico, built by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, when the last gold medal to be given at the Games was placed round the neck of Giorgio di Centa whose win in the 50 km cross-country skiing produced a fairytale finale.
Thousands waved miniature Italian tricolore flags as his sister, Manuela, a member of the Olympic Committee, presented the gold, hugging him tightly. She won five medals at the 1994 Winter Games.
''There were truly magnificent Games,'' International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told a roaring crowd.
A protester momentarily interrupted an address by the president of Turin's organising committee by shouting into the microphone ''Passion lives here'' -- the Olympic slogan. Police swiftly seized the man and escorted him away.
''Athletes, we have admired your brilliant performances. You have seduced us with your spirit of fair play and brotherhood.
Keep the Olympic flame burning in you hearts,'' he told thousands of spectators, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Prince Albert of Monaco.
The Olympic flag was handed to the mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan, as Canada took to the stage to invite the world to ''come play with us in 2010''.
With snow shoes, curling rinks and ice cutters, Canada set the tone for their Games with a rocking performance from native pop star Avril Lavigne on top of a sled.
ANGELS AND DEVILS The thousands of spectators, donned devils and angels carnival masks, joined the extravagance on stage.
Grotesque, fanciful papier mache characters drawn from Viareggio masks -- famous in Italy for more than 100 years as a vehicle for mocking politicians and other powerful figures -- trooped across the stage.
Surrounded by volunteers dressed as Tarot cards, the characters evoked scenes reminiscent of Italian director Federico Fellini.
Fortune tellers and mountain explorers, dressed all in white with silver ski goggles, danced for the Carnival King and Queen, who paraded across the stage, convinced the show was just for them, and not for the dignitaries.
People, dressed in white, flew in the night sky -- buoyed by a stream of air in the centre of the stage. A snowboarder rode the air to cheers of delight from the crowd.
It was a celebration of all things Italian -- vespas and Fiat 500s rumbled on stage -- and a party to rival any 1970s disco night.
Brass-band versions of the Village People's ''YMCA'' and Gloria Gaynor's ''I will survive'', were mixed with ''Volare'' and ''Mambo Italiano''.
But it was down to Niccolo Paganini, the early 19th century Italian composer, to help set a dramatic scene for the finale.
With a harp shooting flames, soldiers and devils entered to be greeted by an Italian rose seller who placed his flowers in the muzzles of their guns.
Then to lyrics sung by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, hundreds of brides flocked on the stage holding lamps and formed the shape of a dove. A white glow slowly darkened and the Olympic flame was extinguished.
Reuters SK VP0440