Last minute changes in torch run

April 9, 2008 5:25:20 PM PDT
The Olympic torch was rerouted away from thousands of demonstrators and spectators who crowded the city's waterfront Wednesday to witness the flame's symbolic journey to the Beijing Games. IMAGES: Photos from events surrounding the torch run

Faced with massive crowds of both pro- and anti-Chinese protesters, the planned closing ceremony at the San Francisco Bay waterfront was canceled and moved to San Francisco International Airport.

The last-minute changes to the route and site of the closing ceremony were made amid security concerns following chaotic protests over the torch in Paris and London, but officials effectively prevented many spectators who wanted to see the flame from witnessing the historic moment.

Mayor Gavin Newsom told The Associated Press that the well-choreographed switch of the site of the closing ceremony was prompted by the size and behavior of the crowds amassing outside AT&T Park.

There was "a disproportionate concentration of people in and around the start of the relay," he said in a phone interview while traveling in a caravan that accompanied the torch.

Less than an hour before the relay began, officials cut the original six-mile route nearly in half.

Then, at the opening ceremony, the first torchbearer took the flame from a lantern brought to the stage and held it aloft before running into a warehouse. A motorcycle escort departed, but the torchbearer was nowhere in sight.

Officials drove the Olympic torch about a mile inland and handed it off to two runners away from protesters and media, and they began jogging toward the Golden Gate Bridge, in the opposite direction of the crowds awaiting its passing. Further confusion followed, with the torch convoy apparently stopped near the bridge before heading southward to the airport.

As the flame traveled toward the airport, news dribbled through the crowds of more than 10,000 spectators and protesters gathered at the waterfront that the torch wasn't coming there.

Spectator Dave Dummer said he was disappointed.

"That upsets me," Dummer said. "My back hurts from standing around on this lumpy sidewalk. ... This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and other people messed it up by protesting."

There were signs of tension even before the torch relay began. Pro-Tibet and pro-China groups were given side-by-side permits to demonstrate, and representatives from both sides spilled from their sanctioned sites across a major street and shouted at each other nose to nose, with no visible police presence to separate them.

At least one torchbearer decided to show her support for Tibetan independence during her moment in the spotlight. After being passed the Olympic flame, Majora Carter pulled out a small Tibetan flag that she had hidden in her shirt sleeve.

"The Chinese security and cops were on me like white on rice, it was no joke," said Carter, 41, who runs a nonprofit organization in New York. "They pulled me out of the race, and then San Francisco police officers pushed me back into the crowd on the side of the street."

Farther along the planned route, about 200 Chinese college students mobbed a car carrying two people waving Tibetan flags in front of the city's Pier 39 tourist destination. The students, who arrived by bus from the University of California, Davis, bangethe runners.

Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, said the U.S. had struck the right balance between preserving freedom of speech for protesters, providing an exhilarating experience for the torchbearers, and preventing a repeat of the chaotic demonstrations that accompanied the torch in London and Paris.

"As close as anybody can do in a free society, so far its looking very good," Ueberroth said. "Virtually anybody and everybody is being heard."

The Olympic flame began its worldwide trek from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing on March 24, and was the focus of protests right from the start.

Although torchbearers in other cities have complained of aggressive behavior by paramilitary police in blue track suits sent by Beijing to guard the Olympic flame, there was no evidence of problems in California.

San Francisco was chosen to host the relay in part because of its large Chinese-American population.

In Beijing, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday to discuss preparations for the games, and "a range of games topics were discussed," the IOC said.

Rogge is to give more details at a news conference Friday, when the IOC's executive board is to discuss Friday whether to end the remaining international legs of the relay after San Francisco because of widespread protest. The torch is scheduled to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to a dozen other countries before arriving in China on May 4. The Olympics begin Aug. 8.

- Headlines at a glance


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