Page last updated at 01:29 GMT, Thursday, 10 April 2008 02:29 UK

'Houdini torch' relay disappoints

By Maggie Shiels
BBC News, San Francisco

People dressed as giant pandas await torch
Giant 'pandas' carried signs saying Beijing Welcomes You

The Olympic torch passed peacefully through San Francisco after authorities switched routes, leaving thousands of protesters and sightseers angry and disappointed.

Until the 11th hour, the city's mayor, Gavin Newsom, had always said the route along the waterfront could be altered. But he had also warned that plans were more than likely to change than stay the same.

When the torch failed to appear on its published passage, rumour and counter rumour filled the air.

Some police guarding the Embarcadero, where it was supposed to pass, surmised it had been either transported by boat, jet ski, bus or car.

After two hours, people were calling it the "Houdini torch" because it and the bearers tasked with carrying it had seemingly vanished.


There seems little doubt that the fear of violence or disruption like that which occurred in Paris and London motivated authorities to pull off a diversion. The move hoodwinked protesters, supporters, sightseers and the world's media who waited and waited for several hours for a glimpse of this symbol of harmony.

Michael Johnson
All I wanted to do was get a picture. These protestors have deprived me of that
Michael Johnson

The switch also left a path of unhappy people in its wake. That included Mary Lou Bradley who travelled on public transport from outside the city.

"I am so disappointed," she said. "This amount of secrecy is just not necessary."

Her friend Linda Sweeney chimed in:

"We have been duped. I feel cheated. We are not being allowed to celebrate a great day in San Francisco's history."

Michael Johnson, who said he was an alternate in the US track and field team that should have competed in the boycotted Moscow Games of 1980, was angry and upset by the turn of events:

"This is my last chance to see the torch. I am dying of a tumour and all I wanted to do was get a picture. These protesters have deprived me of that."

Waiting for a riot

For nearly two hours after the torch was lit, people lingered aimlessly. Scores of workers who had come out in their lunch break returned back to their offices and their groaning workload.

Supporters from both camps meet in San Francisco
Pro-Tibet campaigners came face to face with Chinese supporters

Paul Machle said: "Well there's no point in hanging around here."

Others joked that is was just fine to "sit in the sun and wait for the riot to begin" when the torch finally got to its destination.

In the end, there was no riot. There was no real trouble, just some skirmishes as pro-China supporters engaged in verbal sparring with pro-Tibet backers. The shout-off came in short angry bursts.

"Go China, Go China." That was followed by "Free Tibet. China Out."

And so it went on in various places around Justin Herman Plaza where the torch was supposed to end its journey and the closing ceremonies were meant to be held.

Everyone seemed to be lurching into a bad mood. The crowd even booed the closing ceremonies band, Wonderbread 5.

One-off opportunity

The inertia and following bad humour after the torch's no-show was in contrast to a morning of anticipation and expectation. Everyone was eagerly wondering how the city would perform and if the chaotic scenes that greeted torchbearers in London and Paris would be repeated here.

Xiaoli Chen, a violin teacher from Cupertino, was waving the flag for China and was part of a group that had organised volunteers to get dressed in giant panda suits and carry signs that in Chinese read "Beijing Welcomes You".

Spectator waits for Olympic torch
Where's the torch? The route change left many spectators disappointed

For her, this was "not about politics, but about uniting the world in peace and harmony".

Liyun Zhang brought her 20-month-old daughter Irene along to support the Olympics describing the day ahead as "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". That it was. For the authorities as much as for those protesting China hosting the games.

Wasfia Nazreen, the national director of Bangladesh Students for a Free Tibet, had travelled all the way from Dharamsala. She told the BBC that "China is trying to use the games to legitimise claims on Tibet and we are here to expose China's lies".

The Olympics have always been politically motivated so protests should be accepted
Thomas, Guilford, UK

While the hope was always for a peaceful relay through San Francisco, Wasfia said their intentions were "thoroughly non-violent" though she did admit that "there would be disruption for sure".

What that entailed she refused to say. The outcome was very different as the change of plans ensured peace and harmony reigned and the torch had a smooth ride.

Security was the watchword of this ceremony and while San Francisco was planning for the worst and hoping for the best, there is no doubt it has added a new twist to the story of these Olympics.

The next stop for the torch is the Argentine capital Buenos Aires and again the eyes of the world will be watching to see not only what protesters do, but what the city fathers do.


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