The Olympic teams gathered along San Francisco's waterfront Wednesday to greet the torch relay. There was Free Tibet clad in white. Save Darfur wore green and Free Burma maroon. Pro-China dressed in red.
They sang and chanted and argued politics as they waited for what the International Olympic Committee says is an apolitical symbol of an apolitical event. They were waiting in vain. The spectacle became a specter. Organizers changed the route, hustling the torch onto a bus and sneaking it over to Van Ness Avenue. It was the Rosie Ruiz of torches.
What if they held a parade and everyone came but the parade?
It didn't matter. In San Francisco, same as anywhere else, nobody needs a torch to argue about a torch.
"China lies, people die," chanted Team Tibet in front of the Ferry Building. "Dalai Liar!" answered a Chinese squad.
"One, two, three, four, save the people of Darfur," came the cry from the green crowd down the way. Business people and other spectators chewed on $9 hamburgers in the spotless sunshine outside Taylor's Automatic Refresher, watching the festivities. An ice-cream vendor jingled his cart around. "Five, six, seven, eight, China please, it's not too late!"
"To me it's a travesty that China was awarded the honor of hosting the Olympics," said Janette Sperber, a biofeedback therapist from Oakland holding a sign that read, "Berlin 1936 Wrong, Beijing 2008 Wrong."
"I don't believe China deserves it at this time, and the same was true in 1936 when Germany was awarded the Olympics."
But what country, I asked, has a pristine record on human rights, and who should decide which nations "deserve" to host the Games?
"There are very few countries that are perfect in every way, and the larger and more developed ones that have the capacity to host the Olympics usually have some degree of problems," she said. "It's all a matter of degree, and in my eyes, and the eyes of all of us who are here today, China is just way too far over the line."
Not all. Chinese nationals waved flags, chanted and marched up and down the Embarcadero right alongside the anti-China protesters. There were rumors that large numbers of them were bused in from other cities by the Chinese consulate. The groups jeered and yelled at each other when they crossed. Sometimes the confrontations were angry. Sometimes the slogans and taunts were delivered with smiles.
"We are just supporting the Olympics," said a man who identified himself only as a student named Michael. He carried a trio of small flags: the United States, China and the Olympics. "We earned this opportunity to have the world look at China and see a positive image of China."
I asked him if China "deserved" the Olympics.
"Yes," he said, "China already has a lot of improvements."
A man with a long white beard marched down the middle of the crowded street with a picket sign reading, "I can't afford an actual sign."
The 1 p.m. scheduled start for the torch relay came and went with no sign of official activity. Rumors swirled from cellphone to cellphone. They'd put it on a boat. Somebody saw it on Eighth Street. It was on the Golden Gate Bridge.
It became clear the plans had changed, that the torch may have come to San Francisco, but organizers were damned if they were going to let too many San Franciscans see it. If China intended the torch relay as propaganda, turning it into the stealth torch, while anti-China protesters stood center stage, looked a lot like defeat.
But still the throngs marched and chanted, argued and -- ceaselessly -- photographed each other.
"I know China has some big problems," said Zhenwei Song, part of a group of red-clad Chinese nationals waving giant China flags and chanting. He said he's a Beijing native studying agriculture at UC-Davis, about 75 miles away. "But we have changed, and a great change has taken place, and I think we're going to do better and better. I think the Olympic Games are a party for the whole world, not politics."
A young man dressed as the Dalai Lama stumbled through the crowds along the barricades lining the curb in front of the Ferry Building. He was moaning. Another man walked behind him, waving a Chinese flag and hitting the ersatz Dalai Lama with a rolled-up magazine. "Get out of here!" the second man yelled as he swung.
"Yeah!" yelled a Chinese woman who saw them. She waved her red flag at the men. "Good job! Good job!"
A man with a South Asian accent turned to his friend. "I don't think she got it," he said. "I think she missed the satire."
A white man in a Washington Nationals baseball cap walked on the street side of the barricade showing a large picture of a little boy to people dressed in red or waving Chinese flags. "What'd you guys do with him?" he asked, smiling. "Where'd you put him?"
The boy in the photo is Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom the Dalai Lama named as the 11th Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking lama, in 1995, when the boy was 6. Soon after, the Chinese government removed the boy from Tibet and named its own Panchen Lama. China says the boy is living a normal life in China. Opponents say he's a political prisoner, at best.
The man in the Nationals hat, 33-year-old Jason Helmar of Sacramento, an "unemployed peace protester," continued along the curb. "You know who that is? No? No? You're going to deny it?" An elderly Chinese man in the crowd shouted, "Keep quiet!"
"Where's the lama?"
"What'd you guys do with him?"
"Why'd you kidnap an 8-year-old?"
Helmar's opponent waved his hand and turned away. A cop said the torch had been bused up to Van Ness and the relay runners were carrying it up that street instead of along the waterfront. The bay sparkled and winked at all the politicians who don't understand that the Olympics aren't about politics.
"Let him out of jail," Helmar chirped to the next group along the sidewalk. "Shoot, he could be an Olympian. Who knows?"
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