Olympic Torch Relay Chaotic in San Francisco

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A man carrying a Tibetan flag is attacked by pro-China supporters. i

A man carrying a Tibetan flag is attacked by pro-China supporters awaiting the start of the Olympic torch relay on Wednesday in San Francisco. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
A man carrying a Tibetan flag is attacked by pro-China supporters.

A man carrying a Tibetan flag is attacked by pro-China supporters awaiting the start of the Olympic torch relay on Wednesday in San Francisco.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The Olympic torch relay got off to a chaotic start in San Francisco on Wednesday, when the torchbearer was routed away from thousands who turned out to cheer and protest the flame's journey to Beijing.

The flame disappeared from view for about 30 minutes when the first torchbearer ran into a warehouse near the waterfront after the opening ceremony. It reappeared about a mile from its expected location.

Before the opening ceremony, San Francisco police had announced the relay's six-mile route would be cut in half. They did not offer an immediate explanation, but city officials had warned they might shorten the route for security reasons.

Security Tight

Crowds began to gather early in the day at San Francisco's McCovey Cove, where the Olympic torch was scheduled to make its North American debut.

The torch's circuitous travel around the globe has already has been marked by demonstrations against China's policies toward Tibet and Sudan, and more demonstrations are expected worldwide before it reaches the Summer Games.

San Francisco officials said police officers were backed up by other Bay Area police departments, the California Highway Patrol and the FBI in an effort to keep Olympic runners and bystanders safe, while protecting the protesters' right to free speech.

Nearly 80 torchbearers had prepared to carry the Olympic flame along the route past hordes of protesters and counterprotesters.

Ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes, who was to be one of the torch runners, said the city had taken the proper precautions to protect runners.

Karnazes said city officials reassured participants that law enforcement would work with the State Department and international authorities to avoid a repeat of the chaotic demonstrations in Paris and London. He said the actual relay route would be kept secret as long as possible.

Protesters, Supporters Turn Out

Violent protests in Paris and London prompted several San Francisco torchbearers to drop out.

San Francisco is the only stop for the torch in North America. The city was chosen to host the relay, in part, because of its large Chinese-American population.

Many San Francisco residents have asked for calm and expressed their pride that China was chosen to host the Olympics.

Chinese officials have dismissed previous demonstrations as the actions of a few who are trying to hijack a historical event for their own purposes.

The International Olympic Committee is considering whether to cancel the rest of the torch's world tour.

From NPR and wire reports

Olympic Relay Highlights China's Public Image Crisis

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Pro-Tibet protesters demonstrate at Paris' Trocadero during the Beijing Olympics torch relay. i

Pro-Tibet protesters demonstrate at Paris' Trocadero, opposite the Eiffel Tower, during the Beijing Olympics torch relay amid high security on Monday. Francois Durand/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Durand/Getty Images
Pro-Tibet protesters demonstrate at Paris' Trocadero during the Beijing Olympics torch relay.

Pro-Tibet protesters demonstrate at Paris' Trocadero, opposite the Eiffel Tower, during the Beijing Olympics torch relay amid high security on Monday.

Francois Durand/Getty Images

The recent anti-China protests that erupted as the Olympic torch passed through Istanbul, London and Paris and riots in Tibet in March have created China's worst public relations crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Now, the Chinese government is caught between the need to look tough at home and conciliatory abroad.

China's state television is often heavily censored, but it hasn't flinched from showing scenes of protesters tussling with police and lunging at the torch in Whitehall and on the Champs Elysees en route to Beijing, site of the 2008 Summer Games.

Many Beijing residents say they feel insulted and outraged.

"The Olympics are supposed to be about world peace and athletic spirit," says software engineer Han Xiao. "I think people who cause these disruptions are detestable."

Long Zhicai, a salesman, says, "As an ordinary citizen, I can only express my anger at this situation. But I can't participate in any direct action because the government would prevent it."

Journalist Li Datong says the anti-China protests just reinforce the Chinese government's well-worn historical narrative that Western imperialists are trying to keep the country down.

"Their narrative says that the Chinese people have suffered persecution for the past century, and it's only now that China has become a global player capable of holding this great event," Li says. "There's a sense of national pride."

Nationalistic Chinese Internet users also have accused Western media of distorting facts about the unrest in Tibet.

On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu rejected suggestions that the government was stirring up nationalist sentiment among Chinese.

"I don't think the government could instigate this, nor does it need to," Jiang said. "This is a spontaneous response. Western media have aroused Internet users' righteous anger."

With the challenges to its authority from Tibet and abroad, Beijing is loath to appear weak or make concessions.

Human rights campaigner John Kamm has encouraged Chinese officials to improve their public image abroad through a goodwill gesture. But he says Chinese officials seem more preoccupied about how they are viewed at home.

The government realizes that international public opinion has turned sour, he says, but opinion among the Chinese people has never been better.

Some observers think Beijing could still salvage the situation in the four months before the Summer Games begin, and that sports will prevail over politics.

Shortly after the violence in Tibet, the Los Angeles-based polling firm Kelton Research asked 1,000 Americans what they thought about the Olympics and politics.

Gareth Schweitzer, a partner with the firm, says 90 percent of respondents said they agree with the statement that the Olympics and politics should be kept separate, while 70 percent agree with that statement "strongly."

And 21 percent of those polled said they supported boycotting the Beijing Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee says it may consider cutting the torch relay short in response to the protests. Beijing insists it will carry the relay through to the end and says it's working with American officials to ensure the torch makes it safely through San Francisco — its sole planned stop in the United States — on Wednesday.

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