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Olympic torch finally unifies -- but in anger

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - On the only day in which runners carried the Olympic torch across an American city in 2008, Chinese-Americans and protesters started with sharp divisions over the so-called “Journey of Harmony.”

By day’s end, city and Olympic officials had achieved a harmony between the divergent groups few had predicted -- everyone seemed angry and disappointed the route was radically changed without notice.

“I feel tricked,” said onlooker Terry Costales, 61, of San Francisco. “I feel the mayor tricked the city. ... I’ve been down here for hours. The torch bearers should have their moment in the sun and now they are sneaking around.”

On a beautiful sunny spring day, thousands gathered along the city’s scenic waterfront, stretching from its baseball stadium to the Fisherman’s Wharf district favored by tourists.

Early on, Chinese-Americans reacted angrily as one man came through with a Tibetan flag, resulting in a scuffle until the man was put into a taxi and left the scene.

At another point of the waterfront, Iren Wei, a Chinese immigrant living in Oakland, said through a megaphone: “Tibet is Chinese, belongs to China!”

Tibet supporters passed a group of Chinese immigrants waiting for the torch run to start and yelled: “Shame on Chinese government!” “Shame on China!”

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A supporter of China with a megaphone yelled back: “We love China!”

Some non-Chinese Tibet activists spoke in Mandarin to show off their knowledge of the language and culture. Native Mandarin speakers angrily responded back in accented English to reject the criticism of China.


The arguments lasted for hours. “Tibet is part of China like California is part of the United States,” said Wei Ye, an immigrant who arrived two years ago.

“They are very aggressive. They were in our face,” Scott Bennett, 54, a Buddhist from San Mateo, California, who was carrying a Tibetan flag on a pole.

Some took the war of words to the sky, with small aircraft flying banners. One read “Free Burma,” and at least two others had pro China messages, including “Tibet will always be part of China.”

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Protesters and supporters alike eventually became confused when the torch did not appear along the planned route. Instead, the Olympic flame ended going up Van Ness Avenue, a major thoroughfare of car dealerships, hotels and sometimes drab architecture miles from the waterfront route.

Mayor Gavin Newsom told Reuters the last-minute change was vital to assure public safety. China supporters and critics alike were disappointed.

“It think it was a wimpy decision,” said Katherine York, 46, of San Francisco. “This is the only spot in North America where the torch was going to stop, and no one got to see it except maybe someone by accident who was walking their dog.”

“The people who cared were all out here.”