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ATHENS, Greece - A full moon and security blimps overhead, the Athens Olympics came to a peaceful conclusion Sunday with a Closing Ceremony that celebrated Greece and this major modern accomplishment.
A leading goal of the Games had been to overcome perceptions that Greece's glory days had ended more than 2,000 years ago, and to replace that notion with an example that it was a modern nation capable of staging the biggest event on the planet.
Right up until opening day, however, there were doubts about the country's ability to accomplish this goal, skepticism fueled by repeated delays in the construction of venues and transportation facilities and complicated by the need to spend huge amounts of money to keep the Games secure in a dangerous world.
In the end, the Greeks succeeded on both fronts. And Sunday night they celebrated.
Introducing the Olympic rings to the pulsating music of "Zorba the Greek," organizers brought out a bevy of popular Greek singers and filled the stadium with balloons and blue and white confetti reflecting the colors of the Greek flag. The capacity crowd at Olympic Stadium danced and sang, occasionally breaking out into chants of "Hellas" (Greece's name in its native tongue), exuberantly concluding their fortnight on center stage.
Thousands of athletes, standing on the floor of the stadium, stood around and watched the celebration unfold around them.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge delighted the audience when he greeted it in Greek, saying, "Dear Greek friends, you have won . . . by brilliantly meeting the challenge of holding the Games."
He then presented the Olympic Order to Athens Organizing Committee boss Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the bid leader who regained control of the foundering effort a couple of years ago. She praised the athletes for providing hope and inspiration, volunteers for their devoted service and the Greek people for staying out of traffic lanes reserved for Olympic vehicles and accepting other day-to-day inconveniences that helped the Games run smoothly.
More cheers of "Hellas" drowned out her words at a couple of points.
As is always the case, the Closing Ceremony offered the first formal introduction to the world of the next host city of the Games, in this case Beijing.
Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis handed the Olympic flag, which had flown in Olympic Stadium since Aug. 13, to Rogge, who in turn presented it to Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan. This symbol of the perpetual rite of passage in the Olympic movement brought to mind former Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini taking the flag from the mayor of Nagano, Japan in 1998 and her successor, Rocky Anderson, handing it over to the mayor of Turin, Italy, after the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Beijing's nine-minute Closing Ceremony segment featured photographs on the stadium's big screen of China's historic and modern structures, everything from the Great Wall of China to modern skyscrapers. While 14 young women in colorful outfits that would have outraged Chairman Mao played traditional musical instruments, stilt walkers carrying Chinese lanterns circled the athletes, leading up to a little girl singing a folk song of welcome.
When she finished, the ceremony returned its focus to Greece and the extinguishing of the Olympic flame, done by another young girl who gently blew it out.
The American delegation was led into the ceremony by soccer star Mia Hamm, selected by the other U.S. athletes to be their flag bearer. "To have your peers vote you to be the one, it's one of the biggest honors I've ever received," said Hamm, who is retiring from the U.S. team after leading it to two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup title.
Speaking before the ceremony, she added that she wished the other four long-time members of that soccer team - Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain - could join her. But that being impossible, "I will do it with nothing but incredible pride."
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