The city of San Francisco, the only North American stop for the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch, surprised thousands of supporters, demonstrators and visitors on April 9, by completely changing the planned torch route at the last minute without notification.
As scheduled, the torch was expected to start from the McCovey Cove in the southeast of the city at 1:00 p.m. before heading along the waterfront northbound to famous tourist spot Fisherman's Wharf and finally back southbound to Justin Herman Plaza at around 3:30 p.m. for a closing ceremony.
But after Chinese Olympic swimming champion Lin Li, the first torchbearer of the relay, took the flame from Norman Bellingham, Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee at the McCovey Cove, she started on a route that was totally unexpected, in the opposite direction of both journalists and demonstrators.
Crowds of people standing on the two sides of the should-be torch route looking forward to watching the Olympic torch run were confused. Then the realization sank in that city officials' pre-announced notification of reserving the right to change the route even during the process of the torch relay was actually happening.
A number of spectators disbanded and headed for the end of the planned torch route in the hope of grasping another chance to watch the event. At around 3:30 p.m., patient spectators were told that the torch would not be coming to Herman Plaza and there would be no closing ceremony.
"The torch has already left town," a San Francisco policeman on duty at Herman Plaza told Beijing Review at about 4 p.m. He said that he just received the information from a colleague and had not known of the torch route change until it happened.
It was later reported that the torch went to the airport as its final stop where there was an alternative closing ceremony.
The route change helped San Francisco escape from possible interruptions to the torch run as happened in London and Paris. Thousands of protesters had gathered along the planned torch run, carrying banners, waving flags and shouting slogans, in an attempt to disrupt the event and catch attention.
"We felt it was in everyone's best interests that we augment the route," Mayor Gavin Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle over the telephone toward the end of the torch run. According to the newspaper, the mayor said that he and the Police Chief Heather Fond decided to alter the route at 11 a.m., two hours before the planned opening ceremony of the torch run, when they realized that throngs of people were massing in huge numbers. The mayor also said that before the decision was made, he met with torch runners shortly before the opening ceremony and asked them whether the route should be changed or the run canceled.
Apparently the chaos during the Olympic torch's previous stops had made security a top concern in San Francisco, which had already witnessed over a thousand protestors in its downtown area on the eve of the event.
Some people disagreed with the mayor's decision, holding that it was unnecessary to change the route after so much efforts had been put into security preparations and no violent incidents had occurred during the torch relay.
"I was very disappointed and even frustrated when I heard that the torch wouldn't show up at the planned place," taxi driver Daniel told Beijing Review. He and his wife had been waiting in the middle of the planned torch route for two hours before he returned to work dissatisfied. "I don't know why they just changed the route. Everything was going pretty well," he said.
Sharon Meltcer, who traveled to San Francisco from Atlanta specifically for the torch event, was even more disappointed, but said, "It was probably a smart thing to do."
Mayor Newsom may received a lot of complaints from frustrated torch relay spectators following the dramatic day, but his decision was backed up by Peter Ueberroth, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "The city of San Francisco, from a global perspective, will be applauded," he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Show of support
For many supporters coming from all over the country at their own expense, the gratification of knowing that the torch run was completed without interruption outweighed the disappointment of missing the chance to watch the event.
"It's more meaningful to take part in the activities of supporting the Beijing Olympics than to witness the torch run," Huang Yu said to Beijing Review. "I'm glad that I'm here. It's really worth coming and showing our support."
Huang is a member of the Peking University Alumni in North California. Holding big red flags at Herman Plaza, while waiting for the torch, Huang and other supporters were involved in verbal confrontations with anti-torch groups, but none of them developed into physical conflicts.
Huang said that before he and his fellow companions came for the torch run event, they had an agreement that this should be a peaceful event and they should not act against that principle.
According to reports, despite a large number of anti-torch groups, supporters of the Beijing Olympics were in the majority. Following attempts to stop the Olympic torch relay in London and Paris, Chinese people from around the United States had come to support and protect the torch.
Philippe Q Xu decided to take his annual leave from an American company in Maryland when he heard about the torch run event. "It's a significant and exciting event for all Chinese over the world. I wanted to come and show my support for the Beijing Olympics, especially after all that happened in Paris and London," Xu said, adding that some of Westerners did not know much about China and often look at China with biased views.
"The Olympic Games to be held in Beijing is an opportunity for China to further open itself up and to show to the world what's really going on in China," Xu added.
He had been standing at the McCovey Cove area of San Francisco for over three hours when Beijing Review spoke to him. Others had been waiting since midnight. "I'm so infected by the overwhelming enthusiasm here, you know, songs, dances and drum beating, it's kind of patriotism," said Xu, who has been living in the United States for more than a decade.
According to Xu, more than 50 Chinese Americans, including himself, from the greater Washington D.C. had come for the torch event.
Since people came in different groups or as individuals, it is hard to name the exact number of supporters spread along the planned torch route, but the number who confirmed they would be there exceeded 10,000, according to Siu Yuen Chung, Chairman of the Chinese American Association of Commerce. According to Siu, more than 150 Chinese societies and organizations in San Francisco joined his association to support the torch run.
Karl Mordhorsc from Connecticut was one of the supporters behind a red banner that read "Light the Passion, Share the Dream" in Chinese characters. He is a teacher. "I think the Olympics should be an opportunity to deal with relations rather than arguing or fighting with each other," he said.
(Reporting from San Francisco)