Olympic torch ends troubled Calif. run
April 10: The Olympic torch leaves California for Argentina after a troubled run through the San Francisco area. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
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.
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.
“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.