Olympic athletes have long inspired admiration, but the London Games have introduced the world to a new set of heroes: volunteers.
Volunteers like Kath and Val Pritchard are a case in point. The 40-something sisters both work as schoolteachers during the year and have their summer free to work at Olympic Park. “This is our holiday this year,” says Kath, dressed in the purple and orange shirt and tan trousers that make up the standard volunteer uniform. “Normally we go away together, but we’re doing this instead this year.”
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They applied for positions last year simply because they wanted to be “part of things.” Once through the application process, they received general and venue-specific training. The Pritchards have been tasked with helping out whenever and wherever needed in Olympic Park, which has allowed them plenty of time to meet people. Kath says they now have their sights on their own Olympic goal: posing for a photo with a person from every country. Val nods as she pulls out a sheet of paper, with columns of countries printed on it. “We’ve got a list,” she says. “We’re up to about 30 now.”
The Pritchards’ enthusiasm is wonderful, but it’s not a unique attitude at the Park. London 2012 has so far been celebrated throughout the UK as a huge success, with everything from Team GB’s medal count to the not-bad-for-London weather inspiring glee from Olympic fans. But perhaps the biggest reason behind the continuing cheer of the games is the 70,000 volunteers who have been assigned to keeping events running smoothly. Along with the paid and contracted workers at venues — mostly recognizable by their black uniforms and a less enthused demeanor — the hoards of volunteers are managing everything from ticket scanning to queue control to directing lost spectators. The volunteers have been so integral to the Olympics they’ve been named the “Games makers” by organizers.
That’s not to say that working the Olympics as a volunteer is all fun and games. Many of the workers live outside London and were responsible for finding and funding their own accommodation. For some, that meant bunking with friends or family, while others slept in tents at a nearby campsite for £10 (roughly $15) a night or slightly more at a remote caravan park.
And then there are the long hours. “It’s hard work, it’s tiring,” says retired paramedic Robin Farrall, referring to the 10-hour shifts. “But the camaraderie is amazing.” Farrall is one of 5,000 volunteers working the games as first responders, aiding anyone with a medical issue. He says that most of the people volunteering as first responders are nurses, physicians, physiotherapists and even dentists who were eager to be involved with the Olympics, even if that involvement doesn’t include attending events.
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Unless volunteers were lucky enough to be assigned a job inside a sport venue, Olympic perks don’t include seeing competitions. “There’s too many volunteers and not enough seats,” says Farrall. “We all accept that. It’s no problem. You gotta go with the flow.”
He’s not the only volunteer who doesn’t mind working the Olympics without seeing the games. James Gillespie, an 18-year-old who just graduated from school and is about to embark on a gap year abroad, is volunteering as mobility assistant. “I’m currently meant for pushing wheelchairs around,” he explains, gesturing to a row of London 2012-branded wheelchairs behind him. “I’m just happy here soaking up the atmosphere and everything.”
Many volunteers cited the energy and surroundings of the games as their source of excitement over working. Londoner Sandra Lloyd, another schoolteacher on summer break, says the volunteers are there “because we want to be” and, so far, it’s been a “fantastic experience.” Farrall agrees, saying people “just look forward to the next shift.”
While the volunteers will continue to work throughout the rest of the games, including the Paralympic events, many are already wondering how that friendly, hospitable mood could become one of Britain’s lasting Olympic legacy.
“You do wonder if this kind of atmosphere could ever be transferred into everyday life,” says Kath Pritchard. “Why can’t our work places be much more jovial and happy? It would be nice.”