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Olympic torch rerouted to thwart protestors

The flame travelled in switchbacks in San Francisco and left the crowds waiting for a parade that never arrived.

world Updated: Apr 10, 2008 08:58 IST

The Olympic torch played hide and seek with thousands of demonstrators and spectators crowding San Francisco's waterfront before being spirited away without even a formal goodbye on its symbolic journey to the Beijing Games on Wednesday.

After its parade route was rerouted and shortened to prevent disruptions by massive crowds of protesters, the planned closing ceremony on the waterfront was canceled and moved to San Francisco International Airport. The flame was put directly on a plane and not displayed.

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.

The flame traveled in switchbacks and left the crowds confused and waiting for a parade that never arrived. Protesters also hurriedly changed plans and chased the rerouted flame. 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 (10-kilometer) 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 (1 kilometers) 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 university 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, banged drums and chanted "Go Olympics" in Chinese.

"I'm proud to be Chinese and I'm outraged because there are so many people who are so ignorant they don't know Tibet is part of China," Yi Che said. "It was and is and will forever be part of China."

The torch's 85,000-mile (137,000-kilometer), 20-nation global journey is the longest in Olympic history, and is meant to build excitement for the Beijing Games. But it has also been targeted by activists angered over China's human rights record Hundreds of pro-China and pro-Tibet demonstrators blew whistles and waved flags as they faced off near the site of the relay's opening ceremony.

Police struggled to keep the groups apart. At least one protester was detained, and officers blocked public access to bridge leading
to the ceremony site across McCovey Cove from the ballpark.

One of the runners who planned to carry the torch dropped out this week because of safety concerns, officials said. Local officials tightened security following chaotic protests during the torch's stops in London and Paris and a demonstration on Monday in which activists hung banners from the Golden Gate bridge. Vans were deployed to haul away arrested protesters, and flights were restricted over the city to media helicopters, medical emergency carriers and law enforcement aircraft. Law enforcement agencies erected metal barricades and readied running shoes, bicycles and motorcycles for officers preparing to shadow the runners.

Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the US Olympic Committee, said the US 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.

On Friday, the IOC executive board will discuss 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 on August 8.