From CNN – The threat of violent protests prompted officials to make dramatic last-minute changes in San Francisco Wednesday as the controversial Olympic Torch run got under way.
The torch was lit in a short ceremony at AT&T Park in front of hundreds of pro-Chinese supporters who waved Chinese, American and Olympic flags.
But from the park, the runners, accompanied by Chinese security forces, went into a security warehouse and the torch disappeared from public view.
Vehicles were seen leaving the building moments later.
The torch was driven to a nearby neighborhood, where the runners began the relay.
“It’s still a very tense situation,” CNN’s Ted Rowlands reported.
Thousands of demonstrators were in the city to line a course that was shortened several times, a source involved in the planning of the event said.
Mayor Gavin Newsom had said the route along the waterfront — already cut from eight to six miles — could be changed up to and even during the run itself.
“Things are still subject to change based on the information that we receive,” San Francisco police Sgt. Neville Gittens said. “The goal is to have a safe event for everyone — spectators and participants.”
The city has been gearing up for the protests, trying to head off the kind of chaos that greeted the Olympic torch relay in Paris, France, and London, England.
Police officers’ vacations have been canceled.
Also Wednesday, two more torch runners dropped out of the event, which brings the dropout total to three, the source said.
Activists are in town from both camps: people who believe the Olympics should not be held in China and those who support the event.
In the early hours Wednesday, busloads of Beijing Olympics supporters, dressed in red and waving Chinese flags, arrived and assembled near the city’s McCovey Cove, six hours before the torch run was scheduled to start there.
Footage from CNN affiliate KGO showed demonstrators in white “Team Tibet” T-shirts gathered across the narrow street shouting slogans. Their counterparts shouted back, but the situation remained peaceful as police stood between the groups.
Red-clad demonstrators waving Chinese flags behind barricades stood along a street as pro-Tibet protesters marched by. Several “Team Tibet” marchers restrained a man who carried a Tibetan flag and tried to charge the group.
Business owners in San Francisco asked for calm Tuesday.
“We are begging for five hours of peace,” said Sam Ng, president of the Chinese Six Companies, a prominent benevolent association in the city, according to CNN affiliate KTVU.
San Francisco is the only U.S. stop for the torch relay, where it wraps up the first week of a 23-city international tour.
When the flame arrived in the city Tuesday, thousands of people — chanting slogans and waving banners — demonstrated against China’s human rights record, including its treatment of Tibet.
A day earlier, seven protesters were arrested after three of them scaled suspension cables on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and unfurled a large banner that read “One World. One Dream. Free Tibet.”
Those demonstrators were released before dawn Wednesday, KTVU reported.
Later Wednesday morning, thousands of protesters — some also carrying placards reading “Free Burma” — marched across the bridge. Police stood ready to stop any would-be climbers.
The San Francisco protests came after demonstrations in London and Paris in which dozens were arrested. Protesters tried to snuff the torch’s flame.
“The whole world seems to spontaneously react to the situation and know that it’s a fraud what the Chinese are doing,” said actor Richard Gere, a prominent Tibetan Buddhist who has been a consistent advocate of human rights in Tibet.
Gere belongs to the International Campaign for Tibet, one of several organizations that took part in Tuesday’s protests.
“What the Chinese are doing, this is not an athletic game to them,” he said. “This is putting a stamp of approval on repression and human rights abuses.”
Some of the San Francisco torchbearers expressed concern about the protests.
Two-time Olympian Marilyn King plans to run, despite some apprehensions.
King knows firsthand the worst-case scenario of the Olympic stage. She was at the 1972 Munich games when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by terrorists.
King also lost her chance to compete in the pentathlon in 1980 because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow games.
“There are always people who are willing to step outside those boundaries,” she said. “So I have some anxiety about that.”
Dean Karnazes, another torch bearer, told KTVU he isn’t worried.
“Mayor Newsom assured us of our safety first and foremost,” Karnazes said. “I think it would have been bad to cancel the relay. The torch has always represented hope, peace and unity. To extinguish the flame of hope is the wrong thing to do. The torch has brought light to an issue that needs to be addressed.”
The flame is on a 130-day journey that will take it through 23 cities on five continents and then throughout China, culminating at the Olympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing August 8.
Beijing organizers have said the monthlong international relay will go on despite the protests, but some International Olympic Committee members have suggested considering an early end.
The International Olympic Committee’s executive board will take up the topic of the torch relay “in general” Thursday or Friday, IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said. But there is no proposal to end the global tour early, she said.
The president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, is expected to meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The meeting will focus on the preparations for the Olympics, the IOC said.
On the torch’s visit to France Monday, protesters forced an abrupt halt to the flame’s passage through Paris after 10 miles of the 17-mile (28 km) route.
On Sunday, at least 36 people in London were arrested along the torch’s route, according to London Metropolitan Police.
Liu Jingmin, vice president of the Beijing organizing committee, said the Olympic torch has been “warmly welcomed by the local people” in each city.
He said the organizers “are confident that the Beijing Olympics torch relay in overseas cities will be carried out successfully.”
China’s Foreign Ministry reacted more forcefully.
“We express our strong condemnation to the deliberate disruption of the Olympic torch relay by Tibetan separatist forces regardless of the Olympic spirit and the law of Britain and France,” China spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Tuesday. “Their despicable activities tarnish the lofty Olympic spirit and challenge all the people loving the Olympic Games around the world.”