Olympic torch: A symbol of athletics without politics?

In April, I was there in San Francisco to cheer on the Olympic Torch Relay. It was the only scheduled stop in North America to celebrate the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. While waiting for the flame, I took videos of noisy but peaceful confrontations of protesters screaming back at me. Both pro-freedom Tibet protesters and pro-Olympic China supporters taunted, even wrapped, the other with their flags and banners.

Days later after witnessing this history-making event, my adrenalin is still up! The Olympic Torch in San Francisco was a world event. Still, all that extensive international and local news coverage was not complete. They did not accurately portray the "man-on-the-street." I was there. I want to share with readers an up-close view of being among the 10,000 waiting for the torch. Contrary to public reports of mass disappointment, I personally was (and I am) inspired by the turn of events that day. For the record: I am a fourth generation San Franciscan Chinese American.

The idea that the Olympics should be free of politics is a rallying cause. Let the games be the only focus. With possible future boycotts, the main losers will be the athletes who train their whole lives to represent their country to compete in goodwill. No matter if it's blame or praise, I say that Mayor Gavin Newsom did the right thing for his city. He kept the torch running by altering the route away from the protesters and supporters alike. No torch bearers were hurt, and the right to free speech was maintained. What a juggling feat of politics!

The torch dodged protests, but the protesters and supporters did not dodge the torch… we just couldn't keep up with it! The route kept changing all day.

Riding in a convoy of buses, 500 supporters of the Olympic Torch Relay traveled from the Sacramento Valley to San Francisco. A fourth generation San Franciscan Chinese, I proudly wore a sash with the five official animal mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Their names are BEI – JING – HUAN – YING – NI. Saying these words together, they spell out the official greeting, "Beijing Welcomes You!" They are very symbolic. The 5 Olympic rings are represented by 5 animals: fish, panda, Olympic flame, antelope and swallow. A fellow bus traveler warned me, "You make an easy target." Ironically, there was not another sighting of these animals.

Right off the bus, we were swarmed by the multicolored flag of Tibet and the red flag with yellow stars of China. Numerous demonstrators also marched for whatever cause was out there! One poster protested all wars in the world: "CHINA/USA: Hands off– Tibet, Darfur, Palestine, Iraq, Iran…" In the endless sea of red flags and banners, I had to look twice to separate the Chinese calligraphy from the Tibetan script. It was like flipping an ancient Chinese coin with the square center that's inscribed with both languages. Two rows of barricades ran down the Embarcadero along the waterfront.

Our bus let off its pro-China supporters on the Ferry Building side. Across the wide avenue we could see the site set for the closing ceremonies. That's where the Tibetan protesters had set up a replica of an army tank. Looked real to me! Standing silently next to it was a monk in a maroon robe. His shaved head bowed down at his clasped hands in deep prayer. As I crouched to snap 3 quick photos, the monk stuck out a hand to grab the flag out of my sash! I quickly pulled back and whispered, "Oh no, you don't." Was the monk fake as the cardboard army tank?

By 3 pm, hours after the opening ceremonies, the torch runners were already unexpectedly moved two miles away to the Marina district. Thousands still waiting at Justin Herman Plaza in the Embarcadero were confused that the closing ceremonies were cancelled. Pressed up between the remaining large crowds and the barricades, the Chinese Lion went ahead with its performance. Given San Francisco Chinatown's historic connection to China, the Lion Dance would have been the proper tradition to welcome and close the Olympic Torch Relay.

Where is the goodwill spirit of the Olympics? Was it lost in an Olympics pre-game match between Team China and Team Tibet? Both claimed victory. We at the Embarcadero missed the Olympic flame…but not the flames that fan the Olympic Games!

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