You can’t bottle the volunteer spirit

A 2012 Games Maker says it’s a massive folly for officials to try to ‘capture and recreate’ the volunteering instinct.

Ollie M Picks

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I am two thirds of the way through my London 2012 volunteering stint. Like any new role, it was a tad stressful at first, as I worked out what I was doing. But once I had mastered it, everything new seemed terribly exciting. Now, of course, two weeks later, some aspects of the work can be a bit mundane, as is the case in most areas of life. But I don’t regret a second of the time I’ve committed to this.

As a dedicated driver for one of the LOCOG guests, I get to see lots of different venues, and so fleetingly meet lots of my fellow Games Makers. Some are stationed in the spectacular Olympic venues, others are underground all day in fleet depots. Some stand on street corners, pink foam pointy finger in hand, directing crowds, while others get to carry Usain Bolt’s kit bag. I have also met sweaty towel holders (the towels, not the holders), results collectors, press liaisons, urine-sample officials, athlete support people, bollard monitors, hurdle carriers, toilet security staff, door openers, and, of course, hundreds of people all over the place checking accreditations and tickets. I suspect this is only a fraction of the roles the people in purple uniforms are carrying out. In case anyone’s still in any doubt, yes, the Games are the most enormous endeavour.

The two best roles I have seen so far are: volleyball floor-polishers, who come on between each round and do four beautifully synchronised, high-velocity sweeps across the court; and the people who hold the fencing swords for the athletes, where it occurred to me that would be as close as one might come to being a pirate or musketeer today. In both of those venues, I asked the volunteers if they were into the sport at all. At the volleyball in particular, they replied in unison: ‘We are now!’

It has also been nice seeing other ‘me’s on public transport and in the street, and the uniform appears to be an open invitation for colleagues and strangers to strike up conversations, in a way that Londoners, and city dwellers, more generally, aren’t known for. I can now also provide essential Games information such as what time the Primark store in Oxford Street closes.

If I were to try to explain how varied and diverse the volunteers are, it would just sound like platitudes – but the Games Makers really are a varied bunch. I recall when I collected my uniform from east London many months ago that the queue I was stood in looked like some perfect cross-section of contemporary British society and included, just off the top of my head: a suited businessman with his iPad; three men from a well-known pest-control company; two émigrés from Peru; and a Rastafarian. I am honestly not making this stuff up. Whatever you imagine British diversity to look like, it’s there in the volunteers, too.

And of course, what all of us have in common is that we all volunteered to help ‘make’ the Games. The retention rate for Games Makers, I understand, is 92 per cent. That means that for most people, even those who were assigned some of the less glamorous roles, their commitment was a meaningful one, about contributing to a greater whole and being a part of making that whole work. This definitely isn’t about individual opportunism or self-serving activity.

So it is a bit of a shame, then, that I am now hearing suggestions that one of the legacies of the Games should be to capture and harness the ‘volunteering spirit’ of the 70,000 Games Makers. Surely the essence of any ‘spirit’ is that it is organic and self-perpetuating, and not captured and recreated by others. At best, such a ‘legacy’ could only be an artificial and unsustainable recreation of that spirit; at worst, it would threaten to destroy that spirit.

I recently discovered from one of the regular Games Makers email newsletters that I can turn my ‘once in a lifetime experience’ into something that can ‘benefit (me)’ via a McDonald’s-designed ‘nationally recognised qualification’ that ‘will help make your CV shine’. Really?! I suspect some of my younger fellow volunteers, who appear to want or need every activity they do to be recognised with a certificate (because we reward everything these days), will take up that opportunity to make their CVs shine. But I shan’t. In fact, I feel slightly offended that someone thought my volunteering needed that kind of recognition. Such recognition seems to debase the very spirit that officialdom says it wants to ‘capture and recreate’.

I have already argued that if this role were a paid position, I wouldn’t have applied for it. Equally, if I had felt cajoled by government ministers to be a Games Maker as a way of bonding society together in a feeling of loveliness, I’d have shunned it. And so, when Games Makers are now talked about in almost saintly terms, I feel uncomfortable with that, too.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to be adored as much as the next person – and if people want to tell me I’m doing a good job, that’s just fine. But the mildly hysterical reaction to how brilliant we all are stems from an assumption that what Games Makers are doing is exceptional. Yes, it is a one-off, exceptional event, but what motivates most of us is the same thing that motivates all those other unseen and unrecognised volunteers everywhere, from Scout leaders to Sunday football referees to those who help people in real social need: that is, an individual, altruistic desire to contribute to some greater good.

One question I was asked about my volunteering was why this and not something else? I’m still working out the answer. But what I am clear about is that what the London 2012 volunteers represent is not unique, and that working for free has a very specific meaning and society loses something if we demand that everyone be paid for everything they do. (Just think about the internships furore earlier this year.)

Above all, I dislike the assumption that some external, centralised control is needed to make volunteering work – think about all the things successive governments have done to try to ‘encourage’ volunteering, or the CRB checks they have introduced to monitor and police volunteering. We should neither be cynical about those who volunteer, nor try to sanctify them. Both of those responses would eat away at the altruism of those who just want to do what they believe to be a Good Thing.

Ollie M Picks is the pseudonym of a London 2012 Games Maker. Follow Ollie on Twitter: @ollie_m_picks.

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