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Torch rerouted through San Francisco

Thursday, April 10, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Olympic torch played hide and seek with thousands of demonstrators and spectators crowding the city's waterfront Wednesday before being spirited away without even a formal goodbye on its symbolic stop in the United States.

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

The last-minute changes to the route and the site of the closing ceremony were made amid security concerns following chaotic protests in London and Paris of China's human rights record in Tibet and elsewhere, but they effectively prevented many spectators who wanted to see the flame from witnessing the historic moment.

As it made its way through the streets of San Francisco, 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 said the well-choreographed switch of the site of the closing ceremony was prompted by the size and behavior of the crowds massing 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.

Eluding crowds

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 waterfront 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 waiting for it. More 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."

Tibet issue

Torchbearer Majora Carter decided to show her support for Tibetan independence during her moment in the spotlight. After being passed the Olympic flame, 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 not-for-profit 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."

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.

China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported early today that the San Francisco leg proceeded without major disruptions, although the route had been changed "due to threats by Tibetan separatists and their supporters to storm the relay."

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, in Beijing for meetings with Chinese officials, gave it a mixed review.

"Fortunately, the situation was better yesterday in San Francisco," Rogge said, referring to the previous troubles in London and Paris. "It was, however, not the joyous party that we had wished it to be."


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