China’s Olympic torch visit to San Francisco on Wednesday could easily have degenerated into an ugly embarrassment for The City, following the combative examples of Paris and London — where authorities repeatedly had to rescue the symbol of international sports goodwill from angry crowds protesting Chinese human and animal rights controversies. But San Francisco’s police and city officials handled the high-risk situation flawlessly.
Public emotions were running high and thousands of protesters were known to be converging on The City from around the state and across the country to make known their objections about China’s recent suppression of Tibetan independence demonstrators and its support of brutal dictatorships in Myanmar and Sudan.
Any outcome would have to be called successful for The City if it did not include significant outbreaks of violence, hundreds of arrests and the attendant accusations of police brutality, plus a nasty setback in America’s tricky relationship with the Chinese government.
The clever strategy put in place by the Hall of Justice and City Hall not only avoided these more destructive possibilities, it even achieved the seemingly impossible feat of making the torch relay almost sedate.
This is quite an accomplishment, considering that crowds along the Embarcadero were quick to surround a bus and other vehicles believed to be carrying the Olympic torch. But the number of arrests was minimal, no injuries were on display and the torch was whisked in and out of San Francisco without any sort of international incident.
True, the routing of the torch carriers had to be cut in half and changed while the relay was happening — which disappointed thousands of peaceful spectators who simply wanted to see this once-in-a-lifetime event. But that was probably the only way the Olympic icon could have been kept safely away from the intense throngs of dueling pro-China and pro-Tibet demonstrators along The Embarcadero.
The first torchbearer carried the flame to a secured stage at McCovey Cove and ran into a warehouse while a decoy motorcycle escort departed. But then the torch popped up one mile inland at Van Ness Avenue, where more runners encircled by police motorcycles brought it north to the Marina.
Traversing the northern tip of The City, the Olympic torch procession returned along the 19th Avenue corridor to Interstate 280 and San Francisco International Airport, where it quietly departed for its distant next stop — Buenos Aries, Argentina.
That was indeed a notably truncated stopover in San Francisco, but the Chinese delegation could leave with its dignity intact — even while all demonstrators seeking to make their statements were able to protest peacefully.
The City could well be proud of itself Wednesday.