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Jeff Chiu, Associated Press
A Tibetan supporter, right, argues with a Chinese supporter at a rally for China's Olympic torch at the Ferry Plaza.

SAN FRANCISCO — The only North American appearance of the Olympic torch disintegrated into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse Wednesday when officials unexpectedly diverted the flame away from spectators and protesters and moved the closing ceremony to the airport.

The continuing chaos after tumultuous demonstrations in Paris and London earlier this week raised concerns about keeping the traditional relay.

"I think under this circumstance, it will be questioned in the future," said U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Peter Ueberroth. "I think it will depend on the country, depend on the history."

The torch is on a 130-day, around-the-world journey that began in Greece and ends in Beijing. Its next stop is Buenos Aires on Friday.

Protesters of China's human rights record have disrupted the relay. In London and Paris, demonstrators swarmed the runners and the flame was put out.

Police came out in force in San Francisco, where thousands of people massed along the planned six-mile route hugging the waterfront.

After the torch was lit, officials drove it about a mile from the planned route, far from reporters and protesters, startling passersby.

Torch bearers, flanked by police on motorcycles and bicycles and on foot, jogged and walked along the truncated path, stopping short of the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said city officials altered the route because of security concerns.

"The route as published was not going to accommodate people's First Amendment rights and our public safety concerns," he said. "We ... made a judgment to move the torch to a safe location." He added, "I certainly respect that people were disappointed in the decision."

Protestors used text messages to pass along information about potential routes.

"We'd get word it was in one place, and we'd rush there," said Salt Lake resident Sam Chagzoetsang.

"The area would be barricaded off," he said, "but no torch."

Chagzoetsang was one of 30 Utahns who made the trip to San Francisco to protest what he calls the "flame of shame."

Tempers flared among the spectators.

"That upsets me," said disappointed spectator Dave Dummer. "My back hurts from standing around on this lumpy sidewalk. ... This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and other people messed it up by protesting.'

There were signs of tension even before the torch relay began. Pro-Tibet and pro-China groups were given side-by-side permits to demonstrate, and representatives from both sides spilled from their sanctioned sites across a major street and shouted at each other.

Police struggled to keep the groups apart. At least one protester was detained.

The protestors from Utah were prepared to jump security lines and run alongside the flame, waving a Tibetan flag, Chagzoetsang, 22, said. It wasn't necessary; they never saw the torch.

"I don't think it spent much time on American soil," Chagzoetsang said. "That was a victory."

Chagzoetsang said he hopes the protest will keep the torch route out of Tibet, where people might risk their lives in protest.

"It will only bring more pain and suffering," he said.

Kunga Yeshi, 18, said, "A lot of Tibetan people are getting killed." Yeshi traveled from Salt Lake City to protest. "The Chinese said they'd change if they got the Olympics, but they still won't change," he said.

Chagzoetsang, however, remained optimistic that China will be pressured to change its policies.

"This is one of the largest gatherings I've ever been a part of," he said. "We've just been picking up support along the way."

Contributing: Deborah Bulkeley, Aaron Falk, Deseret Morning News; Associated Press