Proud to be an Olympic volunteer
A London ‘Games Maker’ explains why it is wonderful to help out at the Greatest Show on Earth.
Later this week, I’ll don my London 2012 uniform and join 70,000 other people from across the UK as an Olympics and Paralympics ‘Games Maker’. I’ll be working for about a fortnight, taking time off from my regular job, doing six days a week on 10- to 12-hour shifts and will have no access to any of the fields of play to see any of the sporting events. And I’m doing it all for free because I volunteered to do so. Finally, two years since applying and after numerous training events, I’m really quite excited about my role in London 2012.
When friends and colleagues discovered I’d volunteered a couple of years ago – I never told anyone I was applying, I just did it – there was general interest and mild approval. But interestingly, as London 2012 approaches, that reaction has morphed into bemusement, increasing cynicism and occasionally outrage, with suggestions that I am either being exploited as slave labour and/or that I’m an idiot for ever volunteering.
I’m very happy in my Games Maker skin, so I don’t feel a need to justify my role as a volunteer to anyone other than myself. But that change in people’s reactions is an interesting reflection, I think, of how London 2012 is discussed more generally today.
The initial reaction to the Games coming to London was a general sense of mild excitement. It wasn’t just the crowd in Trafalgar Square that cheered when IOC president Jacques Rogge opened the winning envelope in Singapore on 6 July 2005. Yet that mood has shifted to one of abject cynicism, something increasingly apparent over the course of this year. That cynicism has meant that I’ve found myself justifying why I’m volunteering in a way I never imagined I’d have to – covering everything from the control freakery of the organising body, Locog, to the corporate sponsorship of the Games and lots of other things. I’ve even argued over the meaning of the Olympic spirit and whether or not it has now been lost.
The question people often ask me, when I tell them I am volunteering, is simply ‘why?’. Why would I work for free for the multinational-sponsored IOC, for an event that has apparently lost its meaning, having been ruined by commercialisation, PC politics and aloof sporting bureaucrats?
The reasons, for me personally, are very simple and yet bound up with something a bit more complex. On the day the announcement was made that London had won the bid to host the Games in 2012, I was in the process of moving from Nottingham down to London. When the news came through, both I and the removals company man cheered spontaneously. We were both very pleased and excited for five minutes, and then got back to the practical task at hand of arranging to move me back to London, pronto, because I missed living in such a great city.
The next morning, as I sat in the living room among my boxed-up possessions, the first news of what turned out to be the 7/7 bombings began to emerge. Like many people that day, what I felt wasn’t so much fear or upset, but righteous anger and fury at what had happened in my city. Not ‘my city’ in some corny, born-and-bred sense, but my city and the amazing city of the (then) seven million-plus other people who lived there.
So when the call for London 2012 Games Makers went out shortly after that, volunteering just felt like the right thing to do. And it still does. I live in one of the world’s greatest cities, I’m unashamedly pleased and proud it is hosting the Olympics, and as a Londoner, I want to help contribute to a brilliant event. It’s that simple really.
Other volunteers I’ve spoken to at various training events are doing so for their own particular reasons, including a love of all things sporty (not a passion I share personally), the chance to get away from the family in Bolton for a fortnight (true story), and one person who seemed to have a pathological tendency to volunteer. And although I’ve been reluctant to talk about the 7/7 factor when explaining my own reasons for volunteering, for fear of seeming overly sentimental or emotional, I’ve been surprised and touched at how many others I’ve spoken to, from across the UK, shared a similar reaction.
I’ve had so many arguments about the Olympics and volunteering recently that I think I can summarise them as follows.
‘It’s slave labour and you’re being exploited.’ Anyone who says this needs to learn some history if they think volunteering today is equivalent to past forms of slavery. I volunteered to do this, so unless you think I’m a complete imbecile, do me the courtesy of assuming that I know what I’m doing and that I am doing it willingly. If it’s not something that appeals to you, that’s completely fine. It’s voluntary. The clue is in the name.
‘You should be being paid, given the multinationals that are sponsoring the Games.’ If it were a temporary, two-week paid job, I would never have applied to do it. Those who suggest this fail to understand the difference between wage labour and volunteering and miss the personal commitment and belief a volunteer brings to any role they do for love rather than money. There is a reason those ‘front of house’ roles at the Games – dealing with the athletes, the national Olympic committees and other international guests – are mainly volunteers: it’s because they buy into the Games as a whole and want them to succeed in a way that perhaps someone on a temporary job-creation scheme might not.
‘It’s scab labour.’ Again, a bit of historical and political understanding wouldn’t go amiss here. I am neither strike-breaking nor stealing someone’s job. These roles don’t exist except for a four-week period in the summer of 2012. Where trained professionals are required, they’re hired. Where roles can be staffed by volunteers, they are. And if anyone does seriously call me a scab in person, I swear I’ll swing for them in my faintly silly purple-and-red uniform.
‘How can you buy into Locog’s agenda of sustainability, inclusion and healthy-lifestyles nonsense?’ I don’t, and neither do many of my fellow volunteers. We’re doing this despite, not because of, the agendas of those running the games. I don’t care, for example, that my specially created Adidas trainers are the most recycled and greenest in the world. If sustainability is a major concern for Adidas and Locog, that’s up to them. All I care about is that the trainers keep me comfortably on my feet for 10 hours a day.
‘I live in London and it’s going to be a nightmare for me!’ Jeez, and I thought it was only supermodels who thought the world revolved around them! Some things in life are just bigger than you, and the Olympics is one of them. The world’s greatest sportsmen and women are coming to London, together with hundreds of thousands of other visitors in one capacity or another. This is a world-class city hosting world-class events; learn to cope with the slight inconveniences that come from that. How about having a bit of pride about your city’s role in 2012 rather than being pissy about it?
Incidentally, I’m critical of much of the way Locog has managed certain aspects of the Games, and wouldn’t waste my time trying to defend them. From the seemingly over-generous concessions to sponsors – on things like cash machines only taking Visa cards and only McDonald’s being able to serve chips in the Olympic Park (an idea thankfully dropped) – to the organisers’ efforts to micro-regulate public spaces in the run-up to the Games and for their duration, there are valid reasons to criticise aspects of the way the Games have been handled. It’s a shame, for example, that I find myself writing this piece under a pseudonym because, officially, I’m not meant to talk about my Games Maker role in public without prior approval.
But there is another side to all this. Despite the organisers’ apparent best efforts to exclude, alienate or generally piss us all off, and the attempts of assorted politicians and bureaucrats to hijack the Games for their own political ends and purposes, the Olympic Games are still ultimately ours to enjoy and celebrate. Regardless of what Baron Pierre de Coubertin had in mind when he proposed the idea in the nineteenth century, and of how the modern Olympics has changed and developed since, the simple idea of the world coming together in a festival of physical skill and prowess still captures our imagination. The Olympic Games is something special – you see it in the faces of every competitor who has dedicated his or her life to Olympic success, and we feel it as we watch, inspired, by their achievement, commitment and courage.
That special event is happening here, in my city, and that’s why I’m happy to put myself out to help make them be the best Games they can be.
I don’t expect this piece to convince anyone who wouldn’t have volunteered to think that they should have done. If one were to feel cajoled, pressured or morally blackmailed into volunteering, it would not be volunteering. But I do despair at the general fug people seem to have embraced about the Games and, to be honest, the more cynical others become, the more I’m determined not to be.
For those who think the whole thing is a bread-and-circuses corporate shebang, and that those of us who are taking part or just enjoying the spectacle are mugs for doing so, all I can say is bugger off with your Occupy-style, anti-corporate whingeing miserablism and let the rest of us enjoy the next few weeks.
Ollie M Picks is the pseudonym of a London 2012 Games Maker.
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