Tension thick before Olympic torch relay

Due to security concerns, the route of the Olympic torch relay today is likely to change and crowds will not be allowed to get too close as torchbearers will have a thick police presence around them, Mayor Gavin Newsom said Tuesday, adding that the route near the Ferry Building would be a good bet to still catch a glimpse of the games’ symbol.

The torch relay, which is a run-up event to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, has been a magnet for controversy since it left Olympia, Greece, in March, with protesters eager to make a statement against China’s human rights abuses by rushing torchbearers and attempting to extinguish the flame. In recent days, demonstrators disrupted the torch relay in London and Paris.

Top members of the International Olympic Committee have said they will meet Friday to discuss whether to change, or even cancel, the remaining torch tour, which was supposed to travel through 22 cities during three months. San Francisco is the only North American stop for the torch and groups including the Save Darfur Coalition, the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, and the Students for a Free Tibet have promised to turnout thousands of protestors along the torch route.

The City’s torch relay, scheduled to start at 1 p.m. with an opening ceremony at McCovey Cove, behind AT&T Park, was preliminarily planned to make its way along San Francisco’s waterfront on the Embarcadero to Aquatic Park, before backtracking along Bay Street to Justin Herman Plaza for the closing ceremony.

The mayor, who spoke with U.S Olympic, British, French and Chinese officials Tuesday about the relay and security protocols, said the opening and closing ceremonies have also been cut down from their proposed 30-minute durations to prevent disruptions.

“I don’t think we’re going to have any serious discussion and political statements and events in the opening and closing,” he said.

And although The City reserves the right to adjust the flame’s route, if necessary, the mayor offered torch fans a tip.

“If you go to the center part of the Embarcadero, around the Ferry Building, I think you’ll be amply situated for any contingency and any change and deviation,” Newsom said.

The path for torchbearers will be “as wide as possible,” Newsom said. And the 79 relay participants — one dropped out becuase of concerns about safety — will have “ample” security alongside them, he added.

Peter Ueberroth, the chair of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said after a meeting with Newsom that while he had concerns about security, he had faith in The City’s plans.

“San Francisco will be in the eye of the world tomorrow,” Ueberroth said.

dsmith@examiner.com  

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