SAN FRANCISCO – The Olympic torch played hide and seek with thousands of demonstrators and spectators crowding the city's waterfront Wednesday before being spirited away without even a formal goodbye on its symbolic stop in the United States.
After its parade was rerouted and shortened to prevent disruptions by massive crowds of anti-China protesters, the planned closing ceremony at the waterfront was canceled and moved to San Francisco International Airport. The flame was put directly on a plane and was not displayed.
The last-minute changes to the route and the site of the closing ceremony were made amid security concerns following chaotic protests in London and Paris of China's human rights record in Tibet and elsewhere, but they effectively prevented many spectators who wanted to see the flame from witnessing the historic moment.
As it made its way through the streets of San Francisco, the flame traveled in switchbacks and left the crowds confused and waiting for a parade that never arrived. Protesters also hurriedly changed plans and chased the rerouted flame.
Mayor Gavin Newsom told The Associated Press that the well-choreographed switch of the site of the closing ceremony was prompted by the size and behavior of the crowds massing outside AT&T Park, where the opening ceremony took place.
There was "a disproportionate concentration of people in and around the start of the relay," he said in a phone interview while traveling in a caravan that accompanied the torch.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge expressed relief that the San Francisco relay avoided the turmoil at previous events.
"Fortunately, the situation was better ... in San Francisco," Rogge said at an Olympic meeting in Beijing. "It was, however, not the joyous party that we had wished it to be."
Less than an hour before the relay began, officials cut the original six-mile route nearly in half.
Then, at the opening ceremony, the first torchbearer took the flame from a lantern brought to the stage and held it aloft before running into a waterfront warehouse. A motorcycle escort departed, but the torchbearer was nowhere in sight.
Officials drove the Olympic torch about a mile inland and handed it off to two runners away from protesters and media, and they began jogging toward the Golden Gate Bridge, in the opposite direction of the crowds waiting for it. More confusion followed, with the torch convoy apparently stopped near the bridge before heading southward to the airport.
The plane carrying the torch took off from San Francisco International Airport at 9:05 p.m. PDT Thursday, said airport duty manager Abubaker Azam.
As the flame traveled toward the airport, news dribbled through the crowds of more than 10,000 spectators and protesters gathered at the waterfront that the torch wasn't coming there.
Spectator Dave Dummer said he was disappointed.
"That upsets me," Dummer said. "My back hurts from standing around on this lumpy sidewalk. ... This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and other people messed it up by protesting."
Chinese state media declared the event a success, praising the last-minute route changes as a clever strategy for thwarting "Tibetan separatists."
The activists "ran into a brick wall in San Francisco," the Global Times newspaper, published by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, said on its Web site. It called the changes a "brilliant idea."
"Today's relay was full of suspense and drama ... the whole story was like a Hollywood movie," China News Service said, though it also called the San Francisco leg a "harmonious journey."
Jiang Xiayou, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympic torch relay committee, thanked San Francisco.
"Perhaps some of them failed to see the sacred flame today," Jiang said, speaking through a translator at the closing ceremony. "But we all have felt the passion of the Olympic movement."
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.
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 the site of the relay's opening ceremony. Police struggled to keep the groups apart.
At least two protesters were cited for interfering with officers, but no arrests were made, according to police spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens. Officers blocked public access to bridge leading to the ceremony site across McCovey Cove from the ballpark.
One of the runners who planned to carry the torch dropped out earlier this week because of safety concerns, officials said. The torchbearers competed with people not only protesting China's grip on Tibet, but its human rights record and support for the governments of Myanmar and Sudan.
Local officials say they support the diversity of viewpoints, but tightened security following chaotic protests during the torch's stops in London and Paris and a demonstration Monday in which activists hung banners from the Golden Gate bridge.
Vans were deployed to haul away arrested protesters, and the FAA restricted flights over the city to media helicopters, medical emergency carriers and law enforcement aircraft. Law enforcement agencies erected metal barricades and readied running shoes, bicycles and motorcycles for officers preparing to shadow the runners.
Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, said the U.S. had struck the right balance between preserving freedom of speech for protesters, providing an exhilarating experience for the torchbearers, and preventing a repeat of the chaotic demonstrations that accompanied the torch in London and Paris.
"As close as anybody can do in a free society, so far its looking very good," Ueberroth said. "Virtually anybody and everybody is being heard."
The Olympic flame began its worldwide trek from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing on March 24, and was the focus of protests right from the start.
Torchbearers in other cities have complained of aggressive behavior by paramilitary police in blue track suits sent by Beijing to guard the Olympic flame. Although there were no major problems reported in California, they did make their presence felt.
At least one torchbearer decided to show her support for Tibetan independence during her moment in the spotlight. After being passed the Olympic flame, Majora Carter pulled out a small Tibetan flag that she had hidden in her shirt sleeve.
"The Chinese security and cops were on me like white on rice, it was no joke," said Carter, 41, who runs a nonprofit organization in New York. "They pulled me out of the race, and then San Francisco police officers pushed me back into the crowd on the side of the street."
San Francisco was chosen to host the relay in part because of its large Chinese-American population.
In Beijing, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday to discuss preparations for the games, and "a range of games topics were discussed," the IOC said.
Rogge is to give more details at a news conference Friday, when the IOC's executive board is to discuss Friday whether to end the remaining international legs of the relay after San Francisco because of widespread protest. The torch is scheduled to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to a dozen other countries before arriving in China on May 4. The Olympics begin Aug. 8.
Rogge has refrained from criticizing China, saying he prefers to engage in "silent diplomacy" with the Chinese.
In an interview broadcast Wednesday on the VRT television network in his native Belgium, Rogge warned that pushing China too hard on Tibet and human rights would be counterproductive.
"If you know China, you know that mounting the barricades and using tough language will have the opposite effect," he said. "China will close itself off from the rest of the world, which, don't forget it, it has done for some 2,000 years."
Meanwhile Wednesday, the White House said anew that President Bush would attend the Olympics, but left open the possibility that he would skip the opening ceremonies. Asked whether Bush would go to that portion of the games, White House press secretary Dana Perino demurred, citing the fluid nature of a foreign trip schedule this far out and the many factors that go into devising it.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the British leader will not attend the opening ceremony. Brown's office said the decision was not aimed at sending a message of protest to the Chinese government, that Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell will represent the British government at the opening, and that Brown would attend the closing ceremony.
London is hosting the 2012 Olympics and British officials were expected to attend events throughout the games.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he is debating not attending the opening ceremony as a protest of China's crackdown in Tibet.