Commentary

Tales from the torch relay are full of passion

Updated: April 10, 2008, 6:44 PM ET
By Mary Buckheit | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- I arrived in the Bay Area on Tuesday to follow the Beijing Olympic torch on its trip through the city for its only stop in the United States on a 21-country journey from Greece to China leading up to its arrival at the '08 Summer Games.

As I rode in the airport shuttle from SFO airport to my hotel downtown, traveling along 101 North, I was greeted -- as I imagine the flame and its carriers were, too -- by a giant billboard with a strident message that was impossible to miss, or ignore.

Stand Up for Tibet, Say No to Beijing's Bloody Torch.

Amid worldwide condemnation of China's hold on Tibet, I learned that this powerful public service announcement -- one of many that adorn San Francisco streets and skies these days -- was sponsored by the Committee of 100 for Tibet (the C100), the same group that organized the highly publicized candlelight vigil held Tuesday night that featured pro-Tibet commentary from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actor Richard Gere.

Before the vigil, I walked the streets of the city on Tuesday afternoon without spotting too much out of the ordinary. There was the constant buzz of televisions tuned to local news coverage of organized demonstrations around the city, but in and around Union Square, what I saw was generally business as usual. There were subtle -- although concurrently powerful -- cues, as occasional pedestrians walked silently and evenly through the streets carrying the flag of Tibet. Interestingly, most of these flag bearers were dressed in street clothes, walking without any accompanying verbal memorandums or insistent eye contact -- they were just going about their business, carrying the Tibet flag as casually as if it was a messenger bag or a bottle of water.

Standing at a crosswalk corner, looking up or down any of San Francisco's slanted streets, there was almost always at least one Tibet flag visible above the foot traffic, keeping folks mindful of the cause weighing on so many minds.


As I walked down Market Street around 5 p.m., I saw a large gathering of pro-Tibet supporters in United Nations Plaza. The bright colors of Tibet's red, blue and yellow shuffled about the quad, many supporters intoning peaceful and prayerful song. A great number of the people gathered toted handmade signs with messages such as, "China's disgrace: playing games in Darfur," and, "Your Olympic symbol is painted with the blood of innocent Tibetans."

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Mary Buckheit/ESPN.comA demonstrator employs a skateboard as a sign.

What I found especially powerful about this gathering was its backdrop -- the 55-by-140 foot "TRUTH" mural painted on the brick exterior of the Odd Fellows Building across the street, a weighty statement towering above the crowd looking to promote the reality of China's human rights record.


When I leave my hotel at 6:30 a.m. to take a quick lap and look around at what can be seen before things potentially get too hectic, there was already some activity amid the barely sunlit streets. Standing in Starbucks, I ask a young man wearing a "Free Tibet" T-shirt about the message he is trying to promote and why the torch relay is the place to send that message. I was impressed by the clarity of his response that came freely, even before the barista had handed him his morning coffee.

Photo gallery

The Olympic torch run relay in San Francisco brought out people with their signs in protest and support. ESPN.com's Mary Buckheit captured the scene. Gallery.

"It's not that I'm anti-Olympics or anything, but the event and the torch relay are supposed to be this representation of global harmony and healthy competition," he says. "I'm not trying to mark that spirit, but at a time when so many eyes and ears are on America, and today, California, I think that it's definitely the right time to make my voice heard. We have a chance to make a statement today, while the torch is in our city and say, 'Hey, we're not going to turn a blind eye and pretend that all is well and good just because it's an Olympic year.' What's more important -- preserving the sanctity of the Olympic Games -- the Games -- or standing up against crimes that are being committed against people's basic human rights every single day?"


On Wednesday morning at McCovey Cove come the first signs of pro-China support I've seen since my arrival. A crowd stands by, most waving two flags together -- the Chinese flag and the flag of the Olympic rings. I ask an Asian-American woman walking toward the crowd waving a small, wallet-sized Chinese flag why she is here.

"I love the Olympics!" she tells me simply.

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Mary Buckheit/ESPN.comThe U.S. synchronized swim team stands in support of the torch.

This sea of red support that will build during the day is in stark contrast to the adamant criticism of China that I had seen the day before, but here in San Francisco, where about one-third of the city's population is Asian, it's certainly understandable that there are differing sentiments and feelings of internal conflict. While so many people are distraught over China's violent lockdown in Tibet, the government's lack of effort to thwart the genocide in Darfur, and the nation's position in places like Burma and Taiwan, there are still Asian-Americans who can't help but feel a sense of pride as their homeland prepares to host the Olympic Games. It's reasonable to believe that even those who agree that the policies of China must be disparaged still can't help but support their country with some sense of excitement and respect.


At 10 a.m. I walk from my hotel in Union Square through the heart of Chinatown en route to the Embarcadero. I purposely hoof it down Grant Street, Chinatown's major artery, expecting some activity. Nothing. It's business as usual. Not one flag, not one T-shirt, not even as much as a murmur in or around the open-door shops that line the narrow street.


I arrive at the Embarcadero at 11 a.m., still two hours before the opening ceremony is supposed to begin, but across town, formations are well under way in anticipation of the flame's arrival. I meet Carol and Glenn, a family from Sonoma County clad in "Save Darfur" shirts.

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Mary Buckheit/ESPN.comCarol and Glenn of Sonoma County attended to show support for Tibet.

"We wholeheartedly believe that this is finally the time for Tibetans to have the stage," says Glenn. "Without this opportunity, without this recognition, it has been 50 years of real oppression. The media hasn't covered it sufficiently and most people have chosen to ignore the situation. That's really why we're here today, to call attention and help stop oppression worldwide. As a human family we need to do what we can to need to protect that culture."


Just up the street at One Maritime Plaza, activists from Save Darfur, many who traveled from Washington D.C., readied for their time with the torch. Hundreds came together from the Save Darfur Coalition, Dream for Darfur and STAND, along with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (co-founders of Ben & Jerry's), Sudanese refugees, and international Olympic hopefuls all united by green shirts, free ice cream and one cohesive message as explained to me by Save Darfur's Isaac Shapiro.

"We have symbolic 'alternate torches' today in an effort to protest China's role in Darfur. China is really Sudan's best friend. They have the most influence over Sudan, and at this point, they haven't been using that influence to encourage Sudan to stop the atrocities being committed against the people of Darfur. As the host of the Olympics, China is attempting to embrace the principles of peace and brotherhood that the Games represent, but we think that is inconsistent with the role that they are playing in Sudan. That's why we are able to link the two -- the Olympic torch and the demonstrations for Darfur. We believe that China shouldn't be able to bask in the warm glow of harmonious Olympic ideals when it doesn't respect human rights throughout the world."


At Maritime Plaza I speak with several young people, each from different regions of California, all unified in spreading the message of the travesty in Darfur.

The noble task of scooping free Ben & Jerry's to the masses went to Ato, a Pasadena native and present San Franciscan. Allison and Scott were the two UCLA students who made the drive north to direct street supporters up the stairs to the Plaza's formation. Later Wednesday night they would hop back on the highway to get back for classes Thursday morning in Westwood.

Berkeley was also well represented. Ross summed up the message of his squad of students with the statement: "Genocide anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."


As the afternoon goes on, Justin Herman Plaza fills with protesters. The scene is noisy with choirs of chants coming through bullhorns from every direction. "Free Tibet." "Save Darfur." "Shame on China." "Beijing's guilty." Helicopters swirl overhead and drums lead processions throughout the quad and into the intersection of California and Embarcadero.


I first saw Justin Wong as he was screaming into a megaphone -- hairs-on-end screaming -- at pro-Tibet/anti-China opposition. He and the conflicting group were crossing from opposite sides of the Embarcadero in front of Pier 1. As they converged, the clash was spirited and verbally vigorous.

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Mary Buckheit/ESPN.comJustin Wong was overcome with emotion. "China is my heart."

When the two finally passed each other, Justin stepped onto the curb alone on the other side of the street. I asked him for a few words. He was polite and spoke quietly, so moved by sensation that he choked up as soon as I asked why he was fighting.

Not quite what I expected after seeing the force with which he rivaled anyone slandering China.

Slowly and deliberately, in an accent and a pause about every two or three words, he delivered this statement.

"I came here … today … to show … my love … for my country … and … my support for … the Olympics." Choking up, he continues: "I'm sorry, today has been a little …

"I want the world to know the truth about China. 'Free Tibet' is like saying, you know, 'Free San Francisco.' It would be the same thing. It's a joke. But the purpose that I came here today is for the Olympics. This is not about politics. This is not the right place for politics. This day, today, should be about the Olympics. I live in the Bay Area; China is my heart. I'm Chinese. I love my country and I support the Olympics and I will be here and shout my support for Beijing 2008."


Allyn Brooks-LaSure of SaveDarfur.org introduced me to Emanuel Neto, an Angolan basketball Olympic hopeful and Stony Brook University team member, and Michael Ditchfield, a former Manchester United soccer player. We chat about the activism surrounding the Games and how it relates to athletes of all kinds.

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Mary Buckheit/ESPN.comMichael Ditchfield, a former Manchester United soccer player, and Emanuel Neto, an Angolan hoping to make his country's basketball team, marched in support of Darfur.

Ditchfield, who has been to Darfur to see the destruction and violence, is quick with a response: "When you're dealing with sport and the Olympics, you've got your talent, you have your arms and legs; those are your weapons. But when you're dealing with restoring peace in the world and you've got a platform because you're an athlete, your voice becomes your weapon, and that can go so far! Far beyond the final whistle or even an Olympic medal -- that resounding voice of peace from a platform that people hear."


Mayor Gavin Newsom warned that the torch route was subject to change, but people anticipated they would be made aware of those redirections. Not so. Someone was calling audibles, and the masses were in mass confusion.

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Mary Buckheit/ESPN.comConfrontations and minor scuffles broke out around the planned torch route.
Local news reporters were running around asking different spokesmen if anyone had heard anything. The text-messaging system that was supposed to flare a memo when the course changed wasn't giving any answers. Herds of demonstrators blazed like comets of different colors across the plaza in an effort to see and be seen. The general pose was a sign in one hand and a cell phone in the other, begging for someone, somewhere watching television to clue them in on the whereabouts of the torch, but no key could be found.

Confusion bled into frustration, shrugging shoulders were now fists in the air and methodical voices became shouts.

Unless they were bluffing, SFPD seemed similarly confused. Officers didn't have answers to where the torch would be coming or going, or if it even was passing through as planned.

I stood on a wire chair in the food court of the Embarcadero plaza trying to see something, anything, but what I heard from the gentleman below me summed up the afternoon's disorder: "Nobody knows what the [expletive] is going on here. Are they really going to do this? Is this a direct order from the government in China that we're trying to differentiate ourselves from in America? This is such bull----."


Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.

Mary Buckheit started as ESPN.com's college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time as an editor in 2002 and became a Page 2 Columnist in 2006. She went west to cover life in California, the UFC, AVP, X Games and anything else she can dig up under the sun.