Guarding the Olympic torch for 70 days on its journey through the British Isles sounds like a plum assignment, but experts warn it will carry serious stress and Scotland Yard plans to offer psychological counseling when the 8,000-mile trip is completed.
There are concerns that the 28 carefully selected officers, and the eight held in reserve in case of illness or injury, may have trouble adjusting to routine police duty after the excitement and pressure of the Olympic job.
Scotland Yard said in a statement Friday that the officers will have access to psychologists, physical therapists and doctors, a decision applauded by occupational therapy experts.
"We usually associate stress with something negative, something terrible that has happened, but positive life events can be stressful as well," said Genevieve Smyth, a specialist with the College of Occupational Therapists. "They might really enjoy this task, and it might be a career boost, but that doesn't mean it's not stressful."
She said the protection officers will have to deal with being potential targets and will also have to manage confrontations with protesters while they are under constant media scrutiny, all factors that may make counseling necessary.
"We don't know if everyone will need it or take up the offer, but I would hope any organization would have an interest in checking the well-being of their staff after this stressful situation," she said.
The officers are charged with protecting the torch from fanatics and extremists during its journey throughout much of the United Kingdom. The route will take them through major cities and to Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and dozens of other cities, towns and islands.
The officers will also be expected to be in good enough physical condition to jog alongside the torchbearers when necessary.
The Olympic torch relay has become increasingly politicized in recent years. There were problems in London in 2008 when the torch transited on its way to Beijing, provoking confrontations with protesters angered by China's human right practices and its actions in Tibet.
A protester tried to pull the torch from the hands of popular TV host Konnie Huq during her stint, but she said she also felt intimidated by a special Chinese protection unit made up of security police sent to protect the torch on its worldwide journey. More than 35 protesters were arrested in London.
The problems in London, Paris, San Francisco and other cities that year prompted Olympics officials to scrap international torch relays in favor of strictly national ones.
The police statement said plans are being made to help the officers adapt to regular duty once the Olympics assignment has been completed.
"Mindful of the fact that officers will be taken away from their homes for 70 days and encouraged to live as part of a team, their reintegration ... after the event is already being carefully planned," Scotland Yard said. "The welfare of our staff is of paramount importance."
Clifford Stott, a University of Liverpool Psychology professor who has written extensively about police issues, said the emotional and physical stress of the assignment justifies the decision to provide counseling afterward.
He said it is normal practice to provide psychological help, when it is wanted, to police who have been on covert assignments and are returning to regular duty. The challenge facing the Olympic torch protection unit is similar, he said.
"It has to do with the stress and strains of the job itself," he said. "It's a close protection unit, a very stressful environment. They'll have to jog every day and still stay on top of potential threats."