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A phalanx of San Francisco police line the route of the Olympic torch run in San Francisco today. The torch ended up not being taken down the Embarcadero as officials changed the route.
It might be forever known as the torch relay that wasn't.

At least that was the case for the thousands of spectators and protesters who lost out in San Francisco's hide-and-seek game played all Wednesday afternoon with one of the world's biggest icons.

But the liberal bastion of San Francisco may find it hard to live down.

As the Olympic torch bounced all over the city, leaving a wake of thwarted protesters, bewildered cops, and thousands of sightseers denied a peek at the prize, a debate was already brewing over San Francisco's - take your choice - deft handling or embarrassing bungling of international protocol on the road to the most bitterly contested Olympic Games in recent history.

Almost immediately, a bigger game of second-guessing began.

"I'm disappointed, there are a lot of good people who were disappointed today," Mayor Gavin Newsom said, adding that his top concern was security. "People were safe today."

San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong said police made three arrests, one in McCovey Cove and two near the end of the relay. All were cited and released.

"It was the right decision to not put people in harm's way," she said.

Fong, Newsom and Peter Ueberroth, who heads the United States Olympic Committee, made the decision to change the route about 1 p.m.

City officials and the police seemed pleased with their city-wide fakeout that took the torch miles from its intended route, whisking it onto a Air China flight to Buenos Aires and leaving most everyone else in the dust. Many of the 79 runners, too, said they were proud to have been part of the historic if discombobulated relay, cut in half from its planned six-mile route.

"Actually, it was a relief," said torchbearer Molly Last of San Francisco when she and the other relay participants learned of the new route. The torchbearers even stood in the bus and cheered at the news, she said.

San Francisco police and politicians defended their dodge game, which included running the torch into a warehouse, then somehow having it miraculously reappear miles away on Van Ness Avenue.

But there were plenty of people who said Mayor Gavin Newsom and Olympic organizers blew it.

"I'm very disappointed," said Milpitas engineer Simon He, who waited for six hours and didn't get a glimpse of the torch. "I think the mayor is a coward. Why did he have to change" the route?

"When they remember the torch of 2008 in San Francisco, they will think about the number of protesters and the fact the torch was snuck through the city on secret routes," said Supervisor Chris Daly, a regular vocal critic of Newsom.

Facing crowds of spectators and restless protesters massed along the Embarcadero, officials decided to avoid the Embarcadero entirely and drive the Olympic torch about a mile inland. They did it a away from protesters and media after a morning of sometimes tense standoffs between groups supporting the Beijing Games and its critics.

"We don't have control of the street," one SFPD officer radioed in, as crowds swarmed the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building, just after the 1 p.m. start of the opening ceremony.

Newsom did not even tell the torchbearers about the change until 10 minutes before that very brief ceremony.

Dean Karnazes, a San Francisco marathoner ran with the torch for a short stretch along the Marina Green, spoke for many no doubt when he called the experience "incredible, surreal". He felt badly for those who had waited hours in vain to see the torch but thought the day was a victory on some fronts.

"We got the job done, it was a success even if there were some dicey moments."

Despite several tense moments with police, and a morning episode in which protesters banged on an empty bus, San Francisco reported early Wednesday evening that there were only three arrests. (They were cited and released, police said on their website).

But hundreds of protesters quickly caught on to switch.

Many walked, cycled and took cabs across town to meet up with the relay. Runners were guarded by a phalanx of baton-wielding San Francisco police officers.

But at one point along the new route, Karnazes said protesters got too close, making some of the torchbearers queasy. He called the protesters actions "disgusting."

Still several people along that route were thrilled to have an unexpected front-row seat for the relay as it moved slowly northbound on Van Ness Avenue. "It's lovely if you live a block and a half away," said Nan Gallagher, who left her condo when she heard on KCBS that the torch route had been changed.

John McCormack said he was watching seven news channels following it when he learned that he could see it live. "I didn't think I was going to see the torch today. I love it."

At Greenwich Street, however, officers threatened to arrest John Williams stood near the corner of Van Ness and Greewich with a large squirt gun in his hand.

"China, I don't think, deserves the Olympics," he said. "So I was going to shoot out the flames."

He compiled when an officer asked him to move along.

There were some celebratory moments. Before the relay began, women in bright Chinese costumes performed, a dozen dragons danced, a naked man flashed the crowd and a band, led by a singer in a white wig, pale blue suit and pink socks, warmed up the crowd with renditions of "Disco Inferno" and "Get Down Tonight." When the group left the stage, the crowd expected the torch to come any minute. Instead, the band returned.

"We're back," the singer said.

The crowd booed, getting the first inkling the torch may not make it.

"This was supposed to be about sports, not politics," said Sumiyati Monoarfa, a 57-year-old San Francisco native. "This would have been one of the biggest highlights of my life to see this torch in my hometown. It's been stripped from me because someone wants to protest. They took away my rights and my freedom and I don't appreciate it."

On Friday, International Olympic Committee officials will meet to discuss whether the torch relay should continue its international travels.

David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian based in Los Angeles, predicted that the International Olympic Committee would want the relay to continue, but said the San Francisco experience doesn't help an already marred tour.

"It looks like they're hiding," said Wallechinsky. He said it's uncomfortable for large cities like San Francisco that embrace tolerance to be put in the position of having to defend intolerant regimes like the one in Beijing. "It's a no-win situation for everyone."

But for some they used the event to impart an important lesson.

A Palo Alto mother, Deirdre Crommie, brought her two daughters to the plaza.

"We were happy there were protesters, but we were also hoping the torch could come," said Crommie, who picked up a Darfur protest sign. "The kids learned about civil disobedience."


Mercury News Staff Writers Julia Prodis Sulek and Sean Webby contributed to this report.