Olympic torch journey descends into farce

The San Francisco leg of the Olympic torch relay descended into a farce on Wednesday after the authorities cut the route in half and hustled the torch away from waiting protesters and supporters of the Beijing Games by driving it over a kilometre inland.

At the opening ceremony preceding the afternoon’s relay, the first torchbearer took the flame from a lantern brought to the stage and held it aloft before quickly departing again, running behind the scenes and into a warehouse. It was unclear exactly what had happened to the torch, with even the news channel helicopters unable to find it.

After a 40-minute hiatus, during which rumour spread among the waiting crowd of thousands gathered along the waterfront route, the flame reappeared about more than a kilometre inland, away from the crowds.

Authorities, apparently in a last-minute decision to avoid the protests that had plagued the torch on its parade through London and Paris, reduced the route by half.
A closing ceremony for the torch rally was also suddenly relocated away from the waterfront area.

The scenes will raise fresh questions about the global torch parade and the Olympic ideal. After the restart of the curtailed relay, police motorcycle riders surrounded the runners as they made their way through the streets. But despite attempts to keep the torch away from trouble, television pictures showed protesters clashing with police along the route.

Outside AT&T Park baseball stadium, where the “Journey of Harmony” had been due to start, vociferous supporters and opponents of the games exchanged chants and accusations as they awaited the arrival of the torch. The bad temper evident at the gathering may have persuaded authorities of the wisdom of rerouting the parade.

Unlike the previous legs of the torch’s journey, protesters opposed to China’s policies in Darfur, Tibet and elsewhere were outnumbered by pro-Chinese demonstrators.

The two sides traded insults and accusations in a manner befitting a playground, with chants of “Liar! Liar!” going back and forth. Before the scheduled start of the parade, hundreds of Tibetan activists gathered in the city’s Ferry Park. Not far off, supporters of the Chinese Olympics were watching a mass display of tai-chi.

Officials estimated that at least 6 000 protesters had turned out to line the route, while a pro-Chinese business group printed 10 000 T-shirts to hand out to the public during the day.

The day started with Burmese monks marching across the Golden Gate bridge, originally part of the route for the torch relay. Soon after, rallies against China’s policies in Tibet and Darfur started up close to the waterfront route of the relay.

One bystander, Peter Chen, holding a cardboard flag, said he had come to the display after seeing the unruly scenes in Paris and London.

“I saw the protests and it made me angry. People can express their point of view but not in a violent way. I hope people will look at the bigger picture. There is much more freedom in China than there was 20 years ago.”

In Ferry Park, Tenzin Subhar, whose parents fled Tibet for India before moving to the United States 15 years ago, said she had come to draw attention to the human rights abuses perpetrated by China. Holding a placard bearing the symbol of the Olympic rings as handcuffs, she said: “People in Tibet need to know they are being listened to.”

Tagudh Youngdoung, an organiser of the Free Tibet Team, said that the events in Tibet in March had acted as a “spark in the forest”. He said: “We are not against the Olympics or torchbearers. [But] chanting and holding prayer vigils—the world has become tired of that ... perhaps if you push, people will look a little further.”

The eve of the relay was marked by a rally for Tibet attended by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actor Richard Gere. Thousands listened as the archbishop compared the repression in Tibet to the apartheid era in South Africa. “Thank you for continuing that tremendous tradition to stand for freedom,” he said. “We want to tell the dictators and the oppressors of this world, hey, you have already lost.”

In China, government officials warned against disruption of the relay as the torch reaches Tibet. “If someone dares to sabotage the torch relay in Tibet and its scaling of Mount Everest, we will seriously punish him and will not be soft-handed,” said Qiangba Puncog, governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.—Â

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