Page last updated at 11:31 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 12:31 UK

Tracksuited guardians of the flame

Former tennis player Tim Henman carries the torch in London, 06/04

The Chinese guards protecting the Olympic torch have been described as heavy-handed, aggressive and even thugs. Who are the men in blue tracksuits?

Wherever the Olympic torch goes, it seems controversy follows. But not as closely as the phalanx of Chinese guards charged with protecting the flame.

The team of men in blue tracksuits was first thrust into the spotlight in London, when scuffles broke out between anti-China protesters and police.

London's Metropolitan Police said the guardians had no official role and often got in the way of officers trying to restore calm.

Former Olympic champion Lord Coe, who is now the head of the organising committee for the 2012 London Games, described them as "horrible".

A protester in London, 06/04
One protester tried to grab the torch during the London relay

"They tried to push me out of the way three times. They did not speak English. They were thugs."

But the International Olympic Committee has insisted that their role is "100% normal".

"The torch relay escort team is always supplied by the organising committee of the Games... there is nothing unusual about it," AFP news agency quoted IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies as saying.

The BBC's China editor Shirong Chen says the team are the cream of China's armed police.

Carefully selected from across the country, they have specialist training in crowd control and vehicle handling.

The 70 young officers were sworn in as the Olympic Flame Guardians in August 2007, 30 to take responsibility during the torch relays overseas and 40 to follow the torch inside China.

They must ensure the original flame from Greece never goes out - including watching the torch in hotels and on the chartered aeroplane that transports them - and guard the torchbearers during the relay.

But at least one of the celebrities charged with carrying the torch in London, TV presenter Konnie Huq, was unhappy with the treatment she received.

"They were barking orders at me, like 'Run! Stop! This! That!' and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, who are these people?'"

Besides training in collecting the flame and lighting the torches, the guardians have also been taught about foreign customs and have learned basic language skills in English, French and German.

But from the evidence of London and Paris, analysts are starting to doubt whether their training is sufficient to cope with the number of protesters seeking to make their voices heard along the torch route.

Torch lit in Olympia on 24 March and taken on five-day relay around Greece to Athens
After handover ceremony, it is taken to Beijing on 31 March to begin a journey of 136,800 km (85,000 miles) around the world
Torch arrives in Macau on 3 May. After three-month relay all around China, it arrives in Beijing for opening ceremony on 8 August

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