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 journey to the Beijing Games.
After its parade was rerouted and shortened to prevent disruptions by crowds of protesters, the planned closing ceremony at the San Francisco Bay 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 site of the closing ceremony were made amid security concerns after chaotic protests over the torch in Paris and London, but officials effectively prevented many spectators who wanted to see the flame from witnessing the historic moment.
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, its grip on Tibet, and its support for the governments of Myanmar and Sudan.
Hundreds of pro-China and pro-Tibet demonstrators blew whistles and waved flags as they faced off near the site of the San Francisco relay's opening ceremony. Police struggled to keep the groups apart. At least one protester was detained.
China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported early today that the San Francisco leg proceeded without major disruptions, although the route had been changed "due to threats by Tibetan separatists and their supporters to storm the relay."
Less than an hour before the relay, officials cut the original 6-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 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 awaiting its passing.
Spectator Dave Dummer said he was disappointed.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and other people messed it up by protesting," Dummer said.
At least one torchbearer decided to show her support for Tibetan independence. After being passed the Olympic flame, Majora Carter pulled out a small Tibetan flag that she had hidden in her 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."
About 200 Chinese college students mobbed a car carrying two people waving Tibetan flags in front of the city's Pier 39 tourist destination.
"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."
Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, said the United States 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 in London and Paris.
"As close as anybody can do in a free society, so far it's looking very good," Ueberroth said. "Virtually anybody and everybody is being heard."
The International Olympic Committee's executive board is to discuss Friday whether to cancel the remaining international legs of the relay 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.
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.
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 and that Brown would attend the closing ceremony.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he is debating not attending the opening ceremony as a protest of China's crackdown in Tibet.