Newsom defends changes to torch route

April 10, 2008 7:06:36 PM PDT
Was it really necessary to change the route of the Olympic Torch through San Francisco? Some have called it "the Houdini torch" that moved through the city Wednesday, appearing suddenly, and then vanishing again.

The decision to so dramatically switch the route without warning kept protesters from causing any real problems, but it also robbed thousands of spectators of the chance to see it.

"I do believe that the route will remain substantially as you see it today, but substantially does not mean completely," said Mayor Gavin Newsom at approximately 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon.

The next day everything changed. At 11:00 a.m., as crowds were gathering, the mayor told torchbearers that the Embarcadero route was being shortened and that they would double up and carry the flame in pairs.

"At 11 o'clock they were all told exactly where they'd run," said Mayor Newsom.

The mayor said at 11:15 a.m., when demonstrators attacked an Olympic bus, he became worried things were getting out of hand. At 11:45 a.m. he met with the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee and police commanders and decided to shorten the opening ceremony.

At that point, spectators had no inkling of what was going on.

According to Mayor Newsom, at 1:00 p.m. he decided to change the route entirely to bypass the Embarcadero. He said demonstrators there were spilling over police barricades and he claims Supervisor Chris Daly was leading the way and ignoring officers' orders.

"In fact, it invited more people, thousands ultimately, that walked down the middle of the route and created conditions where we couldn't secure the actual route. It was not particularly helpful," said Mayor Newsom.

Supervisor Daly says he did not cross a barricade, but did take to the streets. "There were thousands of protesters. The only place to accommodate that number wer the streets. That happens at pretty much every San Francisco protest."

The opening ceremony at McCovey Cove began later than scheduled at 1:15 p.m. Ling Li, an Olympic swimmer, raised the torch.

"The reason she stood there and there was uncertainty is that we were making the decision literally right then about what to do," said Mayor Newsom.

Critics, like Supervisor Aaron Peskin, aren't buying it. "I don't think there was any split, last-moment decision to change this. I think that plan was hatched well before one o'clock yesterday."

Tierra Rogers is a basketball superstar at Sacred Heart High School. She says she and the other torchbearers were informed around 1:30 p.m. of what was happening. Her run was the most memorable experience of her life.

"Everybody was waving to me, calling my name like they knew me, and it felt real good," said Rogers.

Former Mayor Willie Brown ran the final leg of the relay. He says torchbearers were warned over and over the route could change and he found out first-hand yesterday.

"I kept yelling, 'please let me know, I want to run, let me know, I want to run.' They didn't let me know. I literally went to two different locations thinking that I'd be able to catch up with my spot," said Brown.

When Brown finally did catch up, the 74th runner was jogging. He was number 78.

As for all of the changes, Brown says Newsom made the right call.


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