A 'Crisis' for the Games The Olympic Flame Flees San Francisco

It was supposed to be an Olympic-sized party for the US city with the closest connections to China. Instead, the flame snuck through back alleys to avoid pro-Tibet demonstrators. IOC head Rogge called the torch tour a "crisis."

By in San Francisco


The Olympic flame hadn't even been handed over to the first torch bearer before the Wednesday relay ran into problems. Tibetan demonstrators managed to stop an official bus carrying the athletes who had been chosen to carry the flame through San Francisco. The protesters, wrapped in Tibetan flags, lay in the street and shouted: "Shame on you China! Shame on you China." Others sprayed "Free Tibet" on the side of the bus, plastered it with stickers and crammed pro-Tibet posters under the windshield wipers. It wasn't long before the front window was cracked. The driver grabbed for his phone and security personnel called for backup. "We only have four officers in front of the bus. Not more," one called into his cell phone. "It's a mess."

Thousands of people began gathering along the planned parade route -- the promenade between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge -- in the sunny, spring morning. Many of them were wearing red T-shirts and carrying the red flag of China, having been bused in by the Chinese Embassy. But many others waved the Tibetan flag, carried protest signs and wore sweat tops emblazoned with "Team Tibet." For hours, the two sides faced off at the relay's starting point, hardly a meter away from each other and separated only by a few police. "Go China Go!" screamed one side. The others answered with "China out of Tibet!"

It was a potentially threatening scene, and one that led the organizers to quickly change the route and shorten it by half. Instead of following Herb Caen Way along San Francisco Bay, the new route led through a non-descript street with little in the way of scenery. San Francisco opted for security -- and indeed, there were no incidents of note. But it was almost as if the torch run had been cancelled. The ceremony turned into a hastily-organized game of hide-and-seek. Without festivity, without dignity. The Olympic flame in San Francisco was a flame in flight. When it was over, the Chinese felt they had been cheated out of their day of celebration. The protesters saw themselves swindled out of their demonstration.

Still, the pro-Tibet activists were the clear winners -- they managed to chase the flame out of the country. It was clear that something was up right after the opening ceremony. The first torch bearer was led past the security barriers and out of sight. For almost an hour, nothing happened at all. Then two torch bearers suddenly appeared more than a kilometer away from the original route, surrounded by Chinese security forces in light blue tracksuits. Jogging police officers bearing truncheons formed a circle around them. On the very outside of the group, police officers on motorcycles provided yet another line of security. The runners waved in apparent enthusiasm, but there were no crowds to wave at. At the edge a few dozen tourists looked on and took photographs on their mobile phones. The crowds with their flags and placards were all obliviously standing along the original route.

The route of the Olympic flame.
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The route of the Olympic flame.

Only a few demonstrators caught up with the flame, having been notified by text message. There was a small scuffle when police officers threw themselves at one particularly unruly demonstrator. One torch bearer, who pulled a Tibet flag from her shirt sleeve, was pulled away.

When word spread among the thousands of people along the original route that the torch was elsewhere, some tried to catch up with the flame. Others made their way to the planned closing ceremony. "I am so disappointed," said one man, who had painted a Chinese flag on his cheek. "Why are they hiding the flame from us?" However, Peter Ueberroth, the head of the US Olympic Committee pronounced himself pleased with how things had gone and said that San Francisco had found the "right balance" for all sides.

Jacques Rogge seemed somewhat less pleased. The head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) spoke of a "crisis" for the first time. At a meeting with his colleagues from 205 national Olympic committees in Beijing he said that the torch relay in San Francisco was at least an improvement on the tumultuous scenes in London and Paris in previous days. "It was, however, not the joyous party that we had wished it to be," said Rogge. "We were saddened by what we saw in London and Paris." Rogge insisted that the Olympic Games would rebound from the current "crisis." He praised the Chinese committee saying that the Beijing games were being very well organized.

Rogge once again spoke of his "serious concerns" about the situation in Tibet and called for a "rapid and peaceful solution." "Athletes in many countries are in disarray and we need to reassure them," he said. The games in August must be underpinned by "respect for ethical values, no doping, no cheating and respect for human rights."

Meanwhile Olympic fans and demonstrators in San Francisco had been engaging in shouting matches all day. Native Tibetan Tashi Dorjee from Minnesota had already been traveling around California by bike for several weeks to raise awareness of the human rights situation in Tibet. He wants to accompany an alternative torch relay called the "Human Rights Torch" by bicycle along Highway One to Los Angeles. "China is using the Olympic Games," he said. "The Communist Party of China is trying to exploit the spirit of the Games to brush up their image." He expressed his concern about the deaths in Tibet, the dissidents in prison and the fact that China is supplying arms for the genocide in the Sudanese province of Darfur.

Alex Li, a software engineer of Chinese descent from San Jose, refused to listen to Dorjee's arguments. "Why are you hijacking this event? Why? You are simply wrong," he shouted angrily at the cyclist. "The games are for the people in China, not for the government. But with these protests you are pitting yourself against the Chinese people. You have the right to protest. But why here? Why now?"

San Francisco has a big Asian population, with a particularly large Chinese community. The city has close economic relations and other connections to China. For this reason, San Francisco was chosen as the only US city to host the torch relay.

However a possible route through Chinatown was discarded at an early stage due to security concerns. But many San Francisco residents of Chinese descent feel cheated that they were not even allowed to cheer on the torch along its route. "I am proud of the Olympics, I am proud of Beijing and my country," said Dan Liu, who lives in a San Francisco suburb. She said that she had always liked the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. But since he began using the Olympics for political ends, "I hate him."

Among the pro-Tibet activists was the teacher and amateur climber Laurel Sutherlin. Along with two like-minded activists, he succeeded Tuesday in climbing up the Golden Gate Bridge and unfurling a huge banner with the words "Free Tibet 2008." Now he was trying again to position demonstrators at the most effective place on the route, after being released from jail at 1 a.m. "We hid our banner in strollers on the bridge," he said, describing his publicity stunt. "We knew that we had 90 seconds to get up there, because the police would need two minutes to arrive. And it worked out well."

Sutherlin said he hoped the torch relay would become a PR disaster for Beijing. Through his protests, he said, he wanted to prevent the torch from being carried through Tibet, as otherwise there would be protests there again and people would be killed. "If the IOC allows the torch to proceed into Tibet they'll have blood on their hands," Sutherlin said.

Although Sutherlin's protest was spectacular, it was just one of many similar actions against China in San Francisco. Burmese monks marched over the Golden Gate Bridge. On Tuesday several thousand demonstrators with candles gathered at the square of the United Nations in the city center. Monks in robes, aging hippies with pony tails, Tibetan students with black headbands all chanted: "Expose China! China lies!"

Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu took part. He said people had demonstrated against apartheid and now it was time to demonstrate for the oppressed people in Tibet. He appealed to world leaders: "For God's sake, for the sake of our children, for the sake of their children, for the sake of the beautiful people of Tibet -- don't go."

Actor Richard Gere, himself a Buddhist and admirer of the Dalai Lama, prayed with monks on the stage. He pleaded with the demonstrators to choose a "violence-free path," adding he had never done as many interviews on Tibet, as in the past few days.

When the "Team Tibet" protest groups announced by text message, just after 4:00 p.m. San Francisco time, they had been "victorious," they were not totally off the mark. "The torch is on the highway, travelling in the direction of the airport, in flight," they wrote. A few minutes earlier the organizers had also cancelled a closing ceremony in a park with live music and a VIP tent. Instead of joyful celebrations, TV pictures filmed from a helicopter, showed how the bus with the torch sped towards the airport.

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