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Torch Runs for Cover as It Reaches San Francisco

April 10, 2008

The New York Times
April 9, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — The Olympic torch arrived at the airport here from Paris
in the wee hours Tuesday morning, exited
out a side door and was escorted by motorcade to a downtown hotel. There
it took a well-deserved break in a room
complete with cable TV, room service and views of the city’s popular
Union Square shopping district.

“It has very comfortable accommodations,” said Mike McCarron, an airport
spokesman, who said the flame —
ensconced in a handsome brass lantern and accompanied by several backup
flames — was “treated similar to a head
of state.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the flame will be under no such bushel as it
makes its only appearance in the United States
on an increasingly tense international tour en route to Beijing. It will
star in a two-and-a-half-hour relay along this
city’s waterfront, involving six miles of pavement, 79 runners and
untold scores of law enforcement officials.

The precise route remained in flux on Tuesday as the torch extravaganza
threatened to become more civic migraine
than celebration in the face of potential protests by those upset with
China’s human rights record and recent
crackdown in Tibet. Mayor Gavin Newsom met with police and relay
officials amid concerns that disruptions in London
and Paris this week not be repeated here.

“I can only confirm that the route is dynamic,” said Nathan Ballard, a
city spokesman.

The San Francisco Police Department canceled days off for patrol
officers and called in state and federal agencies and
officers from nearby cities to help patrol the relay route. A no-fly
zone was established overhead, the Coast Guard
beefed up its fleet and Bay Area police planned on a pair of motorized
water scooters patrolling the waterways.

Downtown buildings also stepped up security, and restaurants along the
route pulled in — rather than pulled out —
patio seating. Sources of anxiety were everywhere: protests atop tourist
attractions, famous and not-so-famous Tibet
supporters and, of course, the city’s lunatic fringe.

“We got monks tomorrow, Desmond Tutu and Richard Gere here today, and a
nude torch relay in the works,” Mr.
Ballard said. “And I have no hope of leaving here without tripping over
hundreds of members of the foreign media. I’ll
tell you one thing: it won’t be boring.”

As in Paris and London, police officers are expected to be running
alongside the torchbearers, an inspiring group that
includes a 75-year-old minister (and “avid recycler”) and a high-school
student who has devoted her young life to
switching households to compact fluorescent bulbs. (One runner, a
14-year-old girl, dropped out Monday out of
security concerns, said David Perry, a relay spokesman.)

Groups were already rallying in the city on Tuesday, with Tibetan
supporters carrying flags in the shadow of City Hall
and a large crowd protesting in front of the Chinese Consulate. On
Monday, seven members of the group Students for
a Free Tibet were arrested after several protesters scaled the
suspension cables of the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl pro-
Tibet banners they had sneaked onto the bridge in baby strollers. (The
bridge authority has since increased
inspections of bags, backpacks, and, yes, strollers.)

And while protesters say no interruptions of the flame will occur here,
some local Chinese leaders are offended that
Wednesday’s event has become so politicized by Tibetan supporters.

“There’s a Chinese saying: river water and well water don’t mix,” said
Rose Pak, the general consultant to the Chinese
Chamber of Commerce, which supports the relay. “You do your thing, and
we do our thing. Why is it you have to
disrupt our celebration, when none of us went and disrupted their

Ms. Pak and other Chinese-American leaders here are particularly vexed
at the actions of the city’s Board of
Supervisors, which voted on April 1 to condemn China’s human rights
record. Chris Daly, the supervisor who wrote
the resolution, went further on Monday, posting a blog entry calling on
followers to “build on the message that’s been
delivered” in Paris and London.

San Francisco was chosen as the torch’s only American stop last year —
shortly after a failed bid for the 2016 Games
— in part because of its large Chinese population. On Tuesday, some
Chinese-American residents said they were upset
that the Games, which begin in Beijing in August, might be tainted by
what happens here.

“It’s terrible,” said Lily Chang, 58, an American citizen who immigrated
from Shanghai six years ago and now works at
a gift shop in Chinatown. “This is not political. It’s sports.”

Politics, of course, is its own type of sports, and a lot seems to be
riding on San Francisco’s success at keeping the
peace. A spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, Emmanuelle
Moreau, said its executive board would
meet Thursday and Friday in Beijing to discuss the problems in London
and Paris and along the remaining route of the
international torch relay.

But she said there were no plans yet to change the route or to discuss
canceling the international leg. “As we speak
now, the expectation is the torch will follow the planned route,” Ms.
Moreau said.

At the same time, Mr. Newsom, a Democrat who has been mentioned as a
possible 2010 candidate for governor, has
also been trying to balance the First Amendment needs of protesters, a
particularly sensitive topic in a liberal city that
never met a rally it did not like.

“Nowhere in the United States has such regular and active protest
activities,” Mr. Ballard said. “We’re good at
accommodating free speech and keeping the peace. And we’re going to
accommodate those twin objectives.”

How far that devotion to free speech will go, of course, depends on how
rowdy crowds get along the still-evolving

Lhadon Tethong, the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet,
said she expected about 1,500 of her group’s
supporters to line the relay route. “We’re not planning on grabbing the
torch or putting it out,” Ms. Tethong said.

Other local groups say they will protest in other ways, including a team
that plans to run naked behind the

“Many more people would have been interested,” said George Davis, the
team’s organizer, in an e-mail message. “But
it’s the middle of the week, many live out of the area and this has been
set up with a fairly short notice.”

Among the torch runners will be the swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who won
five medals at the Games in Athens and is
expected to make the team again this summer.

Ms. Couglin said she was not worried because the U.S. Olympic Committee
had assigned a retired F.B.I. agent to run
with her.

“How many times will I ever get to do that?” she said about the run
“That was a definite yes.”

The most exposed runner of all, of course, will be the naked flame at
the end of the torch. Organizers would not
divulge the flame’s exact location on Tuesday, but said it was being
well taken care of at its hotel.

And how did the flame look, after all of its travails?

“Let’s just say,” said Mr. McCarron, the airport spokesman, who got to
work at 3 a.m. to meet the flame and its jet-
lagged Chinese Olympic delegates, “it looked better than we did.”

Jim Yardley contributed reporting from Beijing and Carolyn Marshall and
Karen Crouse from San Francisco.
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