By Rachel Stern

Thousands of red-clad Olympic supporters and picketing protesters lined the planned route of the Olympic torch on Wednesday in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District. At 1 p.m., the flame was scheduled to make its only North American appearance there, but – amid security concerns spawned by the large crowd size – the route took a surprise and discreet diversion to another part of the city, leaving many onlookers disappointed.

“They should have canceled the event, or at least told people that the route was being changed,” said Chuck McDonald, a San Francisco resident donning a baseball cap. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money for a non-event. People came from all over for a non-event.”

The torch was scheduled to be carried six miles along the waterfront Embarcadero location, culminating in a closing ceremony at the centrally located Justin Herman Plaza. But it was instead placed in an official vehicle after the opening ceremonies, and transported to Van Ness Avenue, which runs through the heart of San Francisco. Eighty runners then carried the torch to the Golden Gate Bridge amid a buffer of police officers. The final ceremony then occurred at the San Francisco International Airport, a location that remained undisclosed until the last minute.

“What the mayor managed to accomplish was a win-win; he protected free speech and public safety,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom’s spokesman Nathan Ballard in a press statement released later that day.

Despite the change of plans, a fierce debate flourished in the Embarcadero for hours after most of the crowd was informed that they would no longer see the Olympic flame. A wide range of protesters – condemning everything from China’s political oppression in Tibet, which was incorporated into the Chinese mainland in 1950, to the poison found last year in its cat food – verbally clashed with China supporters.

Traversing the Embarcadero, Jun Wei of San Francisco shouted into a megaphone: “We love Beijing; we love China; we love the Olympics!”

A large group of locally-based Students For a Free Tibet’s “Team Tibet” supporters then furthered the high-volume yelling match, chanting loudly: “We Want Freedom!” followed by “China Lies, People Die!”

“There should be no Olympics in China because there are no human rights in China,” Pema Jordan, one of the group’s members, told City on a Hill Press (CHP). “The Olympics were started in Greece for peace. There is no peace in China; there is a lot of bloodshed. The whole meaning of the Olympics is being defiled by China.”

Many members of her group were colorfully clad in Tibetan flags or traditional Tibetan attire. Protesters also expressed disdain at China’s policies and alleged human rights abuses regarding Darfur and Burma. At one point, an airplane flew overhead trailing a banner that proclaimed, “Free Burma!”

The torch arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday morning after a stop in Paris, where it was momentarily seized and extinguished by a protester. It is currently en route to Buenos Aires. These protests followed in line with others that have been occurring since Saturday, including an incident in which three protesters scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl two giant pro-Tibet banners and two Tibetan flags.

Controversy is no stranger to the Olympic torch, which garnered criticism for its first modern-day relay in Berlin in 1936. 1n 2005, the torch was stopped en route to the Winter games in Torino, Italy by 100 protesters who opposed globalization and the construction of a local high-speed railway.

At every stop on the torch’s current 185-mile, 21-country route, protesters have expressed disdain or outrage over China’s politics. However, many in the San Francisco crowd saw the torch as an apolitical symbol inherently associated with good sportsmanship and athletic pride.

“The Olympics are about the love of sport,” said San Francisco resident Michelle Joe, clad in a pink polo shirt with an Olympic logo. “People shouldn’t bring political beliefs into the Olympics.”

According to Tibetan Tenzin Tashi, who traveled from Portand, Oregon to see the torch: “The torch represents everyone’s culture without violence attached.”

Michal Chie, a Chinese-born San Franciscan, was offended by the anti-Chinese sentiments he saw and heard throughout the day.

“I read in the paper the other day that ‘it appears a lot of Chinese people are supportive about opposing the Olympics,’ but then they don’t even talk to Chinese people,” he said.

But many, including torchbearer Raj Mathai, expressed pride in the flame’s appearance in San Francisco.

“I don’t see it as controversial,” Mathai, the sports director for the Bay Area’s NBC and a Bay Area native, told CHP before his run. “I think it’s great. I think it’s uniquely San Francisco. We can protest peacefully and we can celebrate the Chinese-American community, as well as the Olympics.”

And in spite of the protest, Mathai remained optimistic about the run: “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world other than San Francisco today.”

Additional reporting by Michelle Fitzsimmons, Melody Parker, Katelyn Jacobson and Marie Haka.