San Francisco torch relay no 'joyous party' but IOC relieved

The head of the International Olympic Committee says he was relieved that the San Francisco leg of the torch relay passed without major incident and is confident the Beijing Games will rebound from recent protests.

The head of the International Olympic Committee says he was relieved that the San Francisco leg of the torch relay passed without major incident and is confident the Beijing Games will rebound from the relay "crisis."

The San Francisco relay "fortunately" avoided much of the turmoil and disruptions that marred the trek through London and Paris, said IOC president Jacques Rogge.

"It was, however, not the joyous party that we had wished it to be," said Rogge at the opening of a two-day executive board meeting in Beijing.

The Olympic torch relay route through San Francisco was shortened almost by half and rerouted at the last minute to thwart disruptions by large crowds of protesters. Also, the planned closing ceremony at the waterfront was cancelled and instead the flame was whisked straight onto a plane at the international airport.

Rogge also sought to reassure athletes that the committee will give them the "games they deserve."

"This is going to be their Games and they will enjoy it. Tell them not to lose faith in the Olympic movement. Tell them we will rebound from this crisis," Rogge said.

The IOC did not rule out the possibility of suspending or scrapping the rest of the international leg of the relay, but officials vowed to push on with San Francisco out of the way.

"The torch relay has to continue," IOC vice president Gunilla Lindberg said. "It's important that we don't give in to violence."

Moving into 'smoother water'

San Francisco was the only North American stop on the Olympic torch's symbolic journey to Beijing, where the Summer Games begin on Aug. 8.

"I think the torch is moving into smoother water now," IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway said. "But we haven't finished the torch relay yet, so we'll have to keep an eye on what's happening."

The next stop for the torch on its 21-stop, six-continent tour is Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then it continues on to a dozen other countries, including India where it is expected to face demonstrations.

Protesters opposed to China's policies on Tibet, Darfur and its overall human rights record have taken centrestage at torch relay events since the flame-lighting ceremony took place late last month in Greece.

The Paris segment of the relay had to be suspended at least five times as demonstrators threatened the torch. Earlier in London, police repeatedly scuffled with protesters, including one who tried to grab the torch while another tried to snuff out the flame.

Heiberg said demonstrators should be allowed, but within limits. "If the police is needed to keep law and order, we'll have to accept that."

Athletes can express views, but not at venues

Rogge also sought to reassure athletes that they are free to express their political opinions, but not at official Olympic venues in Beijing.

The Olympic Charter, he said, enshrines free expression as a "basic human right," but forbids any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" in any Olympic sites or venues.

"I'm very clear on the fact that athletes have ample opportunities to express themselves without hindrance, but just by respecting the sacred environment of the Olympic village, the Olympic venues the podium and so forth," he said.

Rogge said athletes can express their opinions in an interview with the media in their own country or in China during and after the games.

"The only thing we ask is there should be no propaganda or demonstrations of political, religious and racial origin."

He also stressed that athletes need not feel pressured to speak out

Rogge said he would send guidelines explaining the policy to the world's national Olympic committees.

With files from the Associated Press