Kerri Walsh, a former Olympic volleyball gold medalist, carries the Olympic torch in San Francisco on Wednesday. The Olympic torch was rerouted away from thousands of demonstrators and spectators who crowded the city's waterfront to witness the flame's symbolic journey to the Beijing Games.
Noah Berger / AP Enlarge
SAN FRANCISCO - Last-minute changes to the Olympic torch's route through the only North American city on its world tour helped it evade not only protesters, but also fans who lined up for hours waiting for a historic sight that never arrived.
"I'm disappointed, annoyed, tired, frustrated," Sydney Sullivan, 18, said after unsuccessfully trying to chase the flame through the city. "I mean, it's not every day you get to see the Olympic torch."
With scuffles breaking out between human rights activists and pro-Chinese groups Wednesday, the relay was rerouted and shortened to prevent disruptions by massive crowds. The planned closing ceremony at the waterfront was canceled and moved to San Francisco International Airport. The flame was placed on a plane and was not displayed.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge expressed relief that the San Francisco relay avoided the turmoil of the torch's previous stops in London and Paris, where demonstrators had tried to snuff out the flame.
"Fortunately, the situation was better ... in San Francisco," Rogge said at an Olympic meeting in Beijing. "It was, however, not the joyous party that we had wished it to be."
The torch's 85,000-mile, 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, its rule of Tibet and its support for the governments of Myanmar and Sudan.
Chinese officials declared the San Francisco event a success.
"During the torch relay there we have seen lots of patriotic overseas Chinese and local people who warmly welcomed the torch relay, which left many moving moments in our hearts," China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday. "The torch will go ahead in spite of all the difficulties and spread the Olympic spirit and the concept of peace, friendship and progress. And this can not be stopped by any forces."
Jiang Xiayou, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympic torch relay committee, thanked San Francisco.
"Perhaps some of them failed to see the sacred flame today," Jiang said, speaking through a translator at San Francisco's closing ceremony. "But we all have felt the passion of the Olympic movement."
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. The runners began jogging in the opposite direction of the crowds, and the procession gave front-row views to nearby residents, who leaned out their windows for the unexpected sight. More confusion followed, and the torch convoy apparently stopped near the Golden Gate 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. While Olympic fans dispersed in disappointment, many protesters were undeterred by the development.
"I think it was very strange that the torch seemed to be running away from the people, but it was a good day because attention was focused on some very important issues," said Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition.
San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong said the decision was made after protesters who swarmed into the street along the original route refused police orders to get back behind barricades. Disputes among China protesters and supporters were escalating into "pushing and shoving matches," Fong said, and one protest group began breaking windows on a bus.
"We had serious concerns about the possibility of additional violence, of additional disruption ... if the torch bearers were to run along this route," Fong said. "We felt it would not be safe."
There were signs of tension even before the torch relay began. Pro-Tibet and pro-China groups had 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.
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, 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."
Only a handful of arrests were made, and no major incidents were reported, police said.
Local officials say they support the diversity of viewpoints, but tightened security following chaotic protests during the torch's stops in London and Paris and a demonstration Monday in which activists hung banners from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Vans were deployed to haul away arrested protesters, and the Federal Aviation Administration restricted flights over the city. One of the runners who planned to carry the torch dropped out earlier this week because of safety concerns, officials said.
Torchbearers in other cities have complained of aggressive behavior by paramilitary police in blue track suits sent by Beijing to guard the Olympic flame. Although there were no major problems reported in California, they did make their presence felt.
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."
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 it's looking very good," Ueberroth said. "Virtually anybody and everybody is being heard."
On Friday, the IOC's executive board is to 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 Aug. 8.
After the San Francisco event, Indonesian officials announced it would significantly shorten its leg of the Olympic torch relay in the capital, Jakarta, citing security concerns. Their relay was scheduled for April 22.
Rogge has refrained from criticizing China, saying he prefers to engage in "silent diplomacy" with the Chinese.
Meanwhile, the White House said anew that President Bush would attend the Olympics, but left open the possibility that he would skip the opening ceremonies. Asked whether Bush would go to that portion of the games, White House press secretary Dana Perino demurred, citing the fluid nature of a foreign trip schedule.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would not attend the opening ceremony. Brown's office said the decision was not aimed at sending a message of protest to the Chinese government, that Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell will represent the British government at the opening, and that Brown would attend the closing ceremony.
London is hosting the 2012 Olympics and British officials were expected to attend events throughout the games.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he is debating not attending the opening ceremony as a protest of China's crackdown in Tibet.