Volunteers are an important part of any Olympics. Thousands of them are needed: a whole pile to perform in the opening and closing ceremonies — an easy recruiting job — but many more to run the everyday work of the Olympic or Paralympic activity.
For some it’s pure selfless drudgery, knowing they’re making it easier for their country to do a good job. They usher athletes, officials, press and normally spectators in and out of buses, through security. They man information desks strewn everywhere across the Games footprint, explaining the transport system, giving directions, and being welcoming. Some just wave vehicles through gates, though at many Olympics this job goes to military personnel, the camouflage uniforms lending a menacingly serious air: you don’t mess with them. [In Athens, Beijing and Rio quite a few of those standing guard on security entrances toted submachine-guns, but London 2012 and Tokyo 2020 don’t go in for that sort of thing.]
Others are keen about a particular sport, so sign up to help that. Great if you’re tasked with welcoming and helping spectators, standing in the grandstand able to watch the action with them. Less enticing if you end up collecting smelly shoes off boat pontoons, wiping the sweat off equipment, or photocopying results in the media centre. There is a whole roster of volunteers who simply organise numbers and country IDs (on boats, horses, and athletes), working to strict rules about where each identifying sticker must be placed. The proportion who actually get to see sport at their venue, let alone at any other, is about 0.01%. My personal volunteer’s award in London went to a superbly cheerful woman stationed on a tennis umpire’s high-chair day after day at one of the entrances into the Olympic park, greeting everyone with utter bonhomie in at least five different languages through a megaphone, trading hilarious banter with the Brits and being reassuring to visiting supporters. I went in by the same gate each time I visited the park, just to see her in action. I doubt she saw any sport at all.
Oh, and the kit. Fun though it may be to brandish Olympic-themed clothing afterwards as a badge of honour, and the London 2012 volunteers are very proud of theirs, it is eye-wateringly garish, and often created from man-made fabric which can get a bit hot and sweaty. In some jobs it appears obligatory to wear bum-bags. I feel you can tell a lot about a volunteer from whether they wear their bum-bag on their bum, at the side or round the front. Tokyo has improved on this immeasurably by giving them over-shoulder bags instead, as well as fetching fabric hats which are very useful for keeping the sun off. So anyone bumming their bag is doing so strictly voluntarily. Colours, by the way, tell you which job the volunteer is doing. Blue with dark trousers in Tokyo for general helpers, red with dark trousers for specialists and tech, grey t-shirts and khaki shorts/trousers for the quote-takers and others working for the Olympic Broadcast Service. Yellow tabards for transport, red tabards for medical staff, while the security bods are from the Japanese peace corps with a natty red/blue/white uniform.
I’m not one for hyperbole, but the Japanese volunteers are unusually good. One of my metrics is how often they officiously and unnecessarily intervene, and most of the Japanese volunteers manage to avoid that. There’s nothing more exasperating to someone who’s been a week at the Games and knows exactly where they’re going, than to have three different volunteers interrupt you as you’re about to get on the correct bus, not to check your eligibility to use the service, but simply to determine your destination, slowly consult their clipboard (they always have clipboards) and explain that you should take the bus you had always intended to take. Similar issues can arise anywhere in the Games, eg patronisingly explaining where the media centre is when you’ve just come from there, or blocking a crossing point without apparently noticing that you’d already stopped to let a vehicle go through.
Fortunately the main offenders in Japan appear to be transport gnomes, and the rest behave. Today I had one of those infuriating moments: moving from the transport mall to the Main Press Centre, I headed for the electric shuttle bus which takes us round the big buildings. No shuttle yet, so the first volunteer checked I was in the right place and made me line up in a bunch of coned-off areas, 1m apart from every other journalist. (I stayed 2m away, on principle – it’s been fun explaining to Japanese people that we have had tighter rules in Britain. They don’t believe me.) While we waited, Volunteer Two came down the line asking to scrutinise our media accreditation from a distance of a few inches, which was odd since we all had ours very visible on our chests and the large number 4 showing we are media can be seen several feet away. The bus arrived and Volunteer Three stopped each of us while we were trying to board, asking where we were going. Finally Volunteer Four repeated Two’s job, again stopping everyone to check the accreditation and kindly explain this was the bus to the MPC. I stifled a scream or two.
I’ve wondered why I find it all so aggravating — after all, they are just trying to help and to do their best. I think it’s because the Olympic experience, to a journalist, is one hedged round with restrictions even when there isn’t a global pandemic spoiling the party. You’re told where to go, how to do everything and tracked non-stop in a way which isn’t normal. At recent Games facial recognition has been used to log every time you enter any venue: you face an immigration-style camera and hold up your accreditation to a scanner, which compares the photo on the card with the face the machine is detecting. I spotted how they do this in Tokyo: when our accreditation papers are laminated, an RFID-containing square a couple of inches across is laminated inside the folded paper, ready to connect with the scanner. The sense of having stepped into the pages of 1984 is disturbing and the temptation to lose my rag simply to prove I have autonomy rises day by day.
Apart from throttle-deserving gnomes though, the rest have been lovely, showing typical Japanese courtesy to greet, bow and farewell non-stop. The security staff checking bags on entry to every single Games location beam with genuine kindness, priding themselves on waving us through cheerily when they confirm for the nth time that no, we’re not carrying bombs. This year they are requiring us to sip a bit of every drink we bring through the X-ray machines, and look delighted when I lick my lips and say ‘yum’ to the water or orange juice I’ve just tasted.
It makes the whole thing much easier, especially when this time we have to muck about with masks for the face-recognition machines, disinfect our hands yet again, and try to stay well clear of anyone in case they think we’re breaching social distancing. So I’ve kept my temper. For now.
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