BEIJING – They wear bright blue tracksuits and Beijing Olympic organizers call them "flame attendants." But a military bearing hints at their true pedigree: paramilitary police sent by Beijing to guard the Olympic flame during its journey around the world.
Torchbearers have criticized the security detail for aggressive behavior, and a top London Olympics official simply called them "thugs."
"They were barking orders at me, like 'Run! Stop! This! That!' and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, who are these people?"' former television host Konnie Huq told British Broadcasting Corp. radio about her encounter with the men in blue during London's leg of the relay Sunday.
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So far, the "29th Olympic Games Torch Relay Flame Protection Unit" — as the squad is officially known — has kept the flame from being seized during chaotic, protest-filled runs through Paris and London.
Its mettle is likely to be further tested Wednesday in San Francisco, where activists protesting China's crackdown in Tibet and its human rights record have promised widespread demonstrations.
Officially, Beijing has said only that the unit's mission was to guard the flame, in keeping with practices of past Olympic games.
Members were picked from special police units of the People's Armed Police, China's internal security force. The requirements for the job: to be "tall, handsome, mighty, in exceptional physical condition similar to that of professional athletes," the state-run China News Service said.
Special police units are the top tier of the paramilitary corps, chosen for skills in martial arts, marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat, according to sinodefence.com, a British-based Web site specializing in Chinese military affairs.
The training for the Olympic flame detail included daily mountain runs of at least six miles and lessons in protocol. They also learned basic commands such as "go," "step back," "speed up" and "slow down" in English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese, the China News Service said.
But as the torch made a stormy procession through London and Paris, the military training rather than the protocol seemed to come to the fore.
At least one torchbearer said she clashed with the squad, and others have criticized their heavy-handed tactics.
Yolaine De La Bigne, a French environmental journalist who was a torchbearer in Paris, told The Associated Press she tried to wear a headband with a Tibetan flag, but the Chinese agents ripped it away from her.
"It was seen and then, after four seconds, all the Chinese security pounced on me. There were at least five or six (of them). They started to get angry" and shouted "No! No! No!" in English, she said.
De La Bigne tried to push several agents away as they grabbed her arm. She said two French athletes who are martial arts experts tried to help her and clashed briefly with the security detail.
The chairman of the London 2012 Games, Sebastian Coe, was even more blunt.
"They tried to push me out of the way three times. They are horrible. They did not speak English. They were thugs," Coe, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was quoted as saying in British media. A spokeswoman for the London 2012 Olympics committee confirmed that Coe was quoted accurately, but added that he thought he was making private comments.
The Olympic flame wasn't part of the ancient games, and the torch relay didn't become a fixture in the modern Olympics until the 1936 Berlin Games, when it was part of the Nazi pageantry that promoted Hitler's beliefs of Aryan supremacy in the world of sports.
That first 12-day relay from Ancient Olympia to Berlin traversed Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other nations that would later be invaded by the Nazis. And the torch was borne into the Olympic stadium by a blond, blue-eyed runner chosen for his Aryan features.
In years since, security details have been sent out by Olympic hosts to accompany the torch, but until now, they never faced such protests.
For the Sydney games in 2000, at least one uniformed guard followed the torch, and more security was added after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Security officials escorted the flame throughout the 2004 relay for the Athens games, though in small numbers and amid a festive atmosphere.
For Beijing's relay, protesters disrupted the ceremony at Ancient Olympia when the Olympic flame was lit two weeks ago. In London, protesters nearly grabbed the torch, and in Paris, the men in blue extinguished its flame and hustled it to the safety of nearby buses, amid rowdy protests that prompted officials to call off the last third of the relay.
In China, paramilitary police are responsible for a wide range of security tasks from fighting forest fires to quelling civil unrest. After deadly riots and protests broke out in Tibet last month, detachments mobilized to reassert government control.
The Olympics squad is composed of two groups: 30 members covering the torch route outside China, and 40 handling the relay inside China, according to China News Service.
The guards work around-the-clock shifts to ensure the Olympic flame never goes out. News photos showed them on an Air China charter jet staring at two lanterns containing the flame.
In London, the guards stopped a protester from wrenching the torch from the hands of Huq, the former TV host, but she was unsure who they were and what their role was.
"The men in blue perplexed everyone," she said. "Nobody actually seemed to know who they were officially or what their title was. They were kind of very robotic, very full on."
Officials with the Beijing Olympic organizing committee and the government had only praise for the flame attendants.
"I think our protection team members have been following regulations and properly carrying out their flame protection work," said an official in the Olympic torch relay center in Beijing, who gave only his surname, Liu, because he is not an official spokesman.
Zhao Shangsen, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in London, said it is "routine practice" for flame attendants to accompany the torch as it travels around the world.
"Their job is to protect the torch," he said.