SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Olympic torch’s only stop in North America turned into the mystery of the missing flame on Wednesday, as San Francisco abruptly changed the torch route, angering both China supporters and protesters who had waited hours to see it.
Thousands of people converged along the announced scenic waterfront route for the passage of the torch. But shortly after a brief opening ceremony, the first runner, flanked by tall, blue-clad Chinese security officials, disappeared into a large waterfront warehouse.
“I think we were cheated, because I think the meaning of the relay was to show the whole world that our country is hosting the Olympics,” said Michael Huo, 30, a Chinese engineer working at a Silicon Valley start-up company.
The torch was a magnet for chaotic demonstrations in London and Paris in the last week over a range of China issues from China’s crackdown on Tibet last month to human rights. Beijing, embarrassed as it prepares to host the Olympics, has strongly condemned the protests.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told Reuters that the route had to be radically changed at the last minute or the event canceled to ensure public safety.
“We assessed the situation and felt that we could not secure the torch and protect the protesters and supporters to the degree that we wished,” Newsom said by cell phone. “As a consequence we engaged in subsequent contingency planning that we felt would keep people safe.”
The bewildering changes united supporters and protesters divided by politics by angering both sides over the sudden change during the only relay leg in North America on its journey to the Beijing Olympic Games in August.
“I think it’s cowardly. If they can’t run the torch through the city, it means that no one is supporting the games,” said Matt Helmenstine, 30, a California high school teacher who carried a Tibetan flag.
After the torch disappeared from view after the opening ceremony, police boats and jet skis hinted it might be headed up the waterfront by boat. But an hour after the scheduled start, the torch appeared on a major, less scenic north-south street more than two miles away.
“Where it will end up, nobody knows,” said all-news radio station KCBS.
A planned closing ceremony on the waterfront was also scrapped.
San Francisco has a large Chinese-American population and many had waited proudly to see the torch relay. But before the start of the torch run tensions mounted amid confrontations with anti-China protesters.
At least one pro-Tibetan demonstrator was detained.
In front of the city’s ferry building, Christine Lias, 30, was quickly surrounded by more than 30 Chinese-Americans after she yelled: “Free Tibet now!”
“Liar, liar, shame on you,” many in the group shouted.
On a beautiful spring day, San Francisco deployed hundreds of security officers, including FBI agents, backed up by police cars with flashing lights, harbor boats, jet skis and helicopters.
Thousands of pro-China spectators gathered along the original planned route, many flying the five-star Communist Chinese flag alongside U.S. and Olympic flags.
“In 5,000 years of Olympic history the Chinese can finally have one time hosting the Olympics. It means that China is becoming a world power,” said Don Zheng, 41, a Chinese-American computer engineer who emigrated in 1988.
Many Chinese Americans are proud that their ancestral home is hosting the global sporting event and resent the protests.
“I’m loyal to the U.S. but I love China because it’s my motherland,” said Alice Liu, 50, who came to the United States after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The torch relays have attracted many groups unhappy about a range of China-related issues, including Tibet, its human rights record and policies on Sudan’s Darfur region. Critics say China should use more of its clout with Sudan to ease the bloody conflict in Darfur.
China blames Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his associates for orchestrating monk-led protests in Tibet last month as part of a campaign for independence. The Dalai Lama denies this.
Hours before the San Francisco torch relay, President George W. Bush urged China to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Bush and other Western leaders are facing a delicate balancing act as calls mount for them to boycott the Olympics opening ceremony.
Olympics chief Jacques Rogge told the Wall Street Journal that reports the International Olympic Committee executive board would consider scrapping the torch relay outside China, to avoid more ugly scenes, were “based on a misunderstanding.”
(Take a look at the Countdown to Beijing blog at http:blogs.reuters.com/china)
Writing by Adam Tanner; additional reporting by Duncan Martell, Robert Galbraith, Erin Siegal and Philipp Gollner in San Francisco, Richard Cowan in Washington, Guo Shipeng and Nick Mulvenney in Beijing, Lucy Hornby in Xiahe, and John Ruwitch in Hong Kong; Editing by Frances Kerry and Eric Walsh