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Torch tensions split San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO – There's an uncharacteristic tension today in this usually laid back city.

Before dawn, demonstrators started gathering at the end point of the city's Olympic torch relay; so did a large number of supporters of Beijing's Olympic Games.

For all the protesters, there are many here who are just as upset that politics is being mixed with sports and that the demonstrations are spoiling what they hoped would be a celebration of their Chinese ethnic roots and the Olympic spirit.

At first glance, the scene appears festive. There are lots of American and Chinese flags, Olympic banners, and families with young children vying for a prime spot to watch the historic event.  

But once you talk to people you hear the intensity of emotion on both sides and even concern among spectators who wonder if there will be trouble along the way. 

One woman told me she thought twice before bringing her two young kids here, but admitted that she doesn't fully understand the international politics driving the protests. And a businessman told me he was offended that protesters wanted to "spoil our moment in the sun."   

VIDEO: San Francisco braces for Olympic torch relay

Torch following a tension filled path                                                        
As a personal aside, I was lucky enough to be a torch bearer for the Atlanta Games in 1996 and the difference in atmosphere between then and now is striking. Tensions are so high here that a 14-year-old dropped out of today's run because of security concerns.

By comparison, my turn as an Olympic torch bearer was all about cheering crowds and excitement along the route. The biggest worry among torch bearers was whether our arms would tire from holding the torch aloft.

Image: A Pro-Tibet demonstrator waves a Tibetan flag on the route of the Olympic torch parade
SLIDESHOW: Torch tensions

For an event that's been intensively planned for the past nine months, there's also a tremendous amount of uncertainty. The torch is scheduled to travel along the San Francisco Bay, but the route could be adjusted mid-run.

And depending on how things go today, future plans for the torch relay could be scotched.   

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the body's executive board would discuss Friday whether to end the remaining international legs of the relay after San Francisco due to 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.

So, stay tuned. There's a lot riding on what happens here today.