San Francisco Takes Olympic Torch Off-Route

The Beijing Olympic torch made its only appearance in North America on Wednesday. After protests disrupted the torch relay in Europe, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom changed the planned route without an announcement to the public.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008; Page A02

SAN FRANCISCO, April 9 -- In the end, San Francisco punted.

Spooked by protests that overwhelmed the Olympic torch relays in Paris and London earlier in the week, city officials on Wednesday opted to simply avoid the thousands who turned out to demonstrate both for and against China at the flame's only stop in North America as it makes its way to the Beijing Summer Games.

Abandoning a long-planned bay-side route lined with protesters, well-wishers and the merely curious, officials took elaborate measures to sneak the torch into a different part of the city. It emerged on another main thoroughfare, where layers of dark-uniformed police took up positions flanking honorary runners, who at times were waving to empty sidewalks.

The result was a strangely bifurcated day: an orderly, if somewhat lonely, procession unfolding in one part of the city, while the people who turned out for the spectacle went through the motions for the political causes that brought them into the streets, where they were left to themselves.

"It sort of misses the point," said Judy A. Bernstein, who traveled from San Diego to protest on behalf of Save Darfur, a group that advocates pressuring Beijing to promote peace in Sudan, where China has significant clout. "So they hid it so nobody saw it."

There were signs elsewhere, however, that the bad publicity surrounding the Beijing Games was having some effect.

Mario Vazquez Rana, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, said: "We are slightly overwhelmed by the torch relay . . . and I think it will be necessary to make some changes in the future."

Speaking after an association meeting, and alluding to Tibet, he said: "A change is needed, because today's situation is unacceptable in a country that organizes the Games. There are always problems, so there is no need to add further problems by having to worry about the torch around the whole world."

In London, the office of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he will not attend the opening ceremonies Aug. 8 in Beijing. But a spokeswoman said that Brown is not boycotting the Olympics and that he plans to attend the closing festivities.

On Wednesday, the White House said that Bush plans to attend the Olympics but left open the possibility that he would skip the opening ceremonies. Asked whether Bush will go to that portion of the Games, White House press secretary Dana Perino demurred, citing the fluid nature of a schedule for a foreign trip this far away.

The mood in San Francisco was largely anticlimactic.

"I took my kids out of school early to see it," said Greta Keegan, waiting patiently on a curb along the announced route with Cormac, 9, and Maeve, who turned 12 on Wednesday. By 2 p.m. there was no sign of the torch, but Keegan, a native of Ireland, took a philosophical view.

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