It was one of those deceptively beautiful spring mornings in San Francisco, the sort that hint coyly at the idea that the future could only be better than the present. I was up early to get a spot along the parade route for the Olympic torch. Beijing had agreed to let the torch come to San Francisco, perhaps to honor the first Chinatown in North America, and it was seen as a wonderful symbol of solidarity. Of course, that was before China decided to quell an uprising in Tibet.
Besides, this is San Francisco. What's an event without protesters?
So that's about where it stood that April morning. China had leaned on city officials to shorten the route, and they did, dropping the proposed bit through the warrens of Chinatown. In some ways, the symbolism of the torch's visit was lost by not letting it pass through Chinatown, but given the expected protesters, keeping it out was probably a wise idea.
Of course, simply doing a ceremony at City Hall turned out to have been the wisest idea of all. Too bad it didn't happen that way.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'd staked a spot along the Embarcadero, San Francisco's waterfront boulevard, to watch the pageantry. Somehow, I managed to pick just the right spot for what happened next. As the torch approached where I was standing, one of the protesters, not content to just wave signs about Tibet and Darfur, leapt the police barricade keeping the crowds separated from the procession. Right in front of me, the protester executed a beautiful blind-side tackle on the torchbearer. On the football field, it would have assured a fumble. The poor torchbearer never had a chance -- he lost his grip as he crumpled to the pavement.
I'm sure you've seen the slow-motion footage of the Olympic torch flipping end-over-end through the air before the flame was extinguished against the asphalt of the Embarcadero. In real life, it was over before it started, leaving us all standing there wondering what happens when an Olympic flame goes out. The answer, it seems, is to have backups. Out of the line of support vehicles came a man with a miner's lantern, who picked up the torch and relit the flame. The procession continued as if nothing had happened.
Sometimes, though, it's the symbolism that matters. Within a year of that incident, the US and China were at war with one another. The official reasons seem to be some things about economics and possibly Taiwan -- I didn't really pay attention. In my mind, the war started the moment the Olympic flame was extinguished when it fell to Earth -- as if, in that moment, a friendship between nations was extinguished as well.
I can only pray it never happens again.