SAN FRANCISCO - The Olympic torch was rerouted away from thousands of demonstrators and spectators who crowded the city's waterfront Wednesday to witness the flame's symbolic journey to the Beijing Games.
The first torchbearer took the flame from a lantern brought to the stage and held it aloft before running into a warehouse. A motorcycle escort departed, but the torchbearer was nowhere in sight.
Then officials drove the Olympic torch about a mile inland and handed it off to two runners away from protesters and media.
Less than an hour before the relay began, officials cut the original six-mile route nearly in half. The flame's only North American stop has drawn thousands of demonstrators gathered to praise and condemn China during the flame's journey to Beijing.
Chi Zhang, a software engineer from Sunnyvale, waited to see the torch since 10 a.m. He shook his head sadly four hours later when he heard the route had been changed.
'That's surprising,' he said. 'We were very excited about this. This was supposed to be the only stop in the United States. I took a day off work to be here.'
There were signs of tension even before the torch relay began. Pro-Tibet and pro-China groups were given side-by-side permits to demonstrate, and representatives from both sides spilled from their sanctioned sites across a major street and shouted at each other nose to nose, with no visible police presence to separate them.
'A lot of Tibetan people are getting killed,' said Kunga Yeshi, 18, who had traveled here from Salt Lake City. 'The Chinese said they'd change if they got the Olympics, but they still won't change.'
Farther along the planned route, about 200 Chinese college students mobbed a car carrying two people waving Tibetan flags in front of the city's Pier 39 tourist destination. The students, who arrived by bus from the University of California, Davis, banged drums and chanted 'Go Olympics' in Chinese.
'I'm proud to be Chinese and I'm outraged because there are so many people who are so ignorant they don't know Tibet is part of China,' Yi Che said. 'It was and is and will forever be part of China.'
The torch's 85,000-mile, 20-nation global journey is the longest in Olympic history, and is meant to build excitement for the Beijing Games. But it has also been targeted by activists angered over China's human rights record
Hundreds of pro-China and pro-Tibet demonstrators blew whistles and waved flags as they faced off near site of the relay's opening ceremony. Police struggled to keep the groups apart. At least one protester was detained, and officers blocked public access to bridge leading to the ceremony site across McCovey Cove from the ballpark.