Why do it for nothing? A volunteer’s view

August 15th, 2008

Sheila Potter

“That is what the professionals would keep asking us, ‘why are you doing all this for nothing?’” Sheila Potter laughs, remembering her experience as a volunteer for the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. “But I wouldn’t change a thing, I’d do it all over again,” she says.

Sheila Potter - Manchester Commonwealth Games - Volunteer

For three months before the Games opened, Sheila would give up her evenings and weekends to make props and costumes for the £12 million opening and closing ceremonies, which involved a 4,000-strong cast.

It was not as if she weren’t already busily employed as a computing and IT lecturer in north-west England. “I did work hard then,” she remembers. “I’d be in work by seven every morning so that I could get away on time to do the volunteer work in the evening.”

Why did she decide to volunteer? “I thought, this is clearly going to be a special time for the north-west, it’s not going to come round again for me. I wanted to help make the north-west shine!”

She found many others with similar thoughts. “There was the odd skiver, but mostly I met lots of like-minded people. There was an amazing feeling of togetherness, especially once the ceremonies got underway,” Sheila says.

Volunteers of all ages, from 16-year-olds to retirees in their 70s, worked alongside Sheila, who was then in her early fifties. “I still keep in touch with many of them. We meet every Christmas for a meal together.”

Snapshots of the ceremonies still come vividly to mind for Sheila. “I remember being soaked to the skin at the closing ceremony – it poured with rain throughout. I had to ferry paint in a special sequence to the children huddled under this huge sheet,” she says, recalling the schoolchildren who covered themselves with red, blue and white paint to portray a giant British flag.

“At the Opening Ceremony, when Kirsty Howard [a terminally ill six-year-old girl who has done much charity work] went up with David Beckham to give the Jubilee Baton to the Queen, that was it for me,” she says. “I just started crying and crying. People were crying all over the place. The emotions were so strong. The feeling ‘wow, we’ve done it!’ after all the hard work.”

Manchester Commonwealth Games - Opening Ceremony

The experience didn’t end with the Games for Sheila. After registering with The Experience Corps database of over-50s with something to offer, Sheila found herself becoming a business mentor for The Prince’s Trust. Two years after that, an invitation to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace landed on her doormat. “It’s funny the little twists life takes after you do something,” she muses.

A Cast of Thousands – and the Woman in Charge of Them

August 8th, 2008

Anna Maidon

It’s all very well having thousands of people keen to help, but if you haven’t got a structure in place to direct them, all that enthusiasm could go to waste.

Anna Maidon - Athens

That’s where professional organiser or ‘cast coordinator’ Anna Maidon comes in. She has managed the volunteer ‘casts’ of the ceremonies for several sporting events, including Doha 2006 and Athens 2004, with around 10,000 volunteers apiece. “There is no title which captures the enormity of the job I do,” she said from her home in Salt Lake City, in the United States.

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“First we identify a process to work with. I liaise with the Games organising committees up to 15 months before the show,” she explained. “Typically you start with the marketing department so that people who volunteer know exactly what they are entering into. Education and out-reach programmes are designed to make it clear what is required of volunteers. Then we need to develop a programme that will motivate the volunteers as we go along, keep people coming back to help.”

Then comes the task of how best to deploy people. Each ceremony has major departments of work – costume-making and design, construction, performance, catering, transport, and so on. Each department needs behind-the-scenes volunteers, not just those who want to perform in the show itself. Anna estimates that each department has up to 100 volunteers working alongside professionals to get the show ready.

“Many of the volunteers will be asked to make quite long-term time commitments as preparation and rehearsals begin a few months before the show,” Anna said.

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Most volunteers really rise to the occasion, she finds. “A very small number of people are maybe in it only for themselves and don’t see the higher personal reward. That can be tough to work with,” she said. “But we operate on a small budget and most people appreciate that. They understand what it represents to be involved in the Olympics. When the light goes on, and people realise the enjoyment in volunteering, that’s a very exciting moment.”

Some volunteers come to enjoy it so much that they become ‘career volunteers’. “I’ve met people who go from event to event volunteering,” she said. “I came across people in Doha who had been in Athens and in Salt Lake City before that.”

Another crucial aspect of Anna’s job is to look after the volunteers while they work. “We are really conscious of their well-being. They are the spokespeople of the Games, they interact with the public.” Keeping volunteers happy means having a carefully crafted budget to provide them with decent catering, drinking water and even some kind of memorabilia to take away at the end. Anna and her team may liaise with city authorities to provide cut-price public transport for volunteers or she may end up booking special buses to bring them to the work-site.

And you need to keep track of everyone. Anna creates vast databases of people’s names, addresses and numbers, even body measurements for those wearing costumes in the show. She also helps design communication systems to keep in touch with these people, for example using mass text messaging.

As volunteers are expected to provide their own accommodation, most are recruited locally. This presents its own problems. “We have to be very culturally sensitive when communicating with local volunteers. I do a lot of work to find extremely good translators and to find out the local customs I need to respect such as siesta times or key religious holidays. And in some places, there may not be a custom of giving time, as there is of giving money. So that can entail some education work.”

It’s hardly a job you can commute to, and that alone demands a huge commitment from Anna, who has been producing such events for more than eight years. For each major event, she up-sticks and finds herself a temporary home in the host city. “I lived for 15 months in Doha for the Asian Games, and 12 months in Athens for the 2004 Olympics. It is challenging personally. When you go away for long periods of time, you can lose your own community. It’s tough to miss out on big personal moments back home. But I love going to live abroad, it’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen to do what I’ve done.”

Olympic Volunteers – Strength in Numbers

August 1st, 2008

Imagine placing a job ad and having 1.2 million people reply. That’s the number of volunteer applicants that organisers in Beijing have been grappling with in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. From first aid to translation, driving to stewarding, costume-making to computing; volunteers are “the lifeblood of the Olympic Games,” as the London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe has put it.

Already 100,000 people have signed up to volunteer for the London 2012 Olympics. But not everyone who volunteers will get a role. London organisers expect that overall 70,000 will be needed to help run the Games. Recruitment for the different roles will begin in 2010, on the basis of whose skills match the roles.

One of the biggest attractions for volunteers – particularly school-children – are the opening and closing ceremonies. Some 10,000 are expected to take part in the three-hour Beijing ceremony. The Athens 2004 Opening Ceremony used a similar number from 31 different countries, with ages stretching from just seven to 75.

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Corralling such numbers of people requires professional help. For complex events such as the ceremonies, Olympic organising committees call in production companies, such as Jack Morton (Athens 2004 Olympics, Manchester Commonwealth Games) or David Atkins Enterprises (Sydney 2000 Olympics, Doha 2006 Asian Games), among others. These companies are charged with ‘producing’ the event: making sure all aspects of it run to plan on the night. Key to this is organising the volunteer workforce.

What is an Opening Ceremony?

July 24th, 2008

Part pageant, part musical, part technological showcase: one thing any opening ceremony should never be is understated. Imagine being given an advertising slot with a reach of more than one billion viewers worldwide. If you’re the country hosting the Games, you’re going to want to put on some show. And we’re not talking a cursory plug of several minutes; these shows are expected to last over three hours.

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Whether it’s the Olympics, the Commonwealth or the Asian Games, opening ceremonies have come to be one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the whole two- or three-week sporting event. It’s the chance for the host country to show the rest of world how creative they are, how well-organised, how well-resourced – and of course, how well-financed.

Budgets for ceremonies are rarely bandied about, but Olympics generally have higher price tags. The Athens 2004 Olympics opening ceremony is thought to have cost over $100 million. Some reports say Beijing 2008 wants to match this figure, while others say money will be no object for the ceremonies.

That certainly seemed to be the ethos behind the ceremony most inspiring planners in China. The 15th Asian Games in Doha, in 2006, kicked off with what is widely agreed to be the most spectacular opening ceremony ever seen. With an unspecified budget, the three-and-a-half hour extravaganza played to 50,000 spectators and an estimated television audience of 1.7 billion.

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Some 8000 performers from 20 countries told the story of the great regions of Asia, spanning historical eras, through the device of a boy’s journey along the Silk Roads, in search of a magical armillary sphere. Sixty-four horsemen, 2,300 children and 10,000 different costumes embellished the show.

Five years in the planning, the show culminated with Qatar’s Sheikh Muhammad bin Hamad Al-Thani riding a horse up a specially constructed steep flight of stairs to the top of the stadium. After shakily scaling the last rain-wet steps to the summit, the rider tipped his torch to light the 60-metre cauldron in the form of a giant astrolabe, triggering a massive firework display.

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Such spectacles support an entire industry of construction and design. For Athens 2004, a miniature sea was created on the floor of the main Olympic Stadium as the centrepiece for a retracing of almost four millennia of Greek history, during four hours of performance.

More than 2,200 cubic metres of water filled the 9,500 square metre lake. It took six hours to fill and three minutes to drain! The specially designed underground reservoir had a capacity of 2.3 million litres of water. Fire fuelled by natural gas forced up through the lake water illuminated the five Olympic rings in the centre of the stadium.

With the generous funding they are thought to enjoy, planners at Beijing 2008 know its ceremony, a fiercely guarded secret, must equal or better these most recent displays.

Useful Olympics and 2012 Websites

June 28th, 2008

Official and unofficial sites that offer a wide range of Olympics related stories;

Official

London 2012

London 2012 – Blog – A variety of LOCOG staff posting regularly

Vancouver 2010

Beijing 2008

Related

UK Sport – The UK’s high performance sports agency

Gamesbids.com – Active site, but focused on the Olympic bidding process

Around The Rings – Good source of independent news and information about the Olympic Movement

London 2012 Candidate City Video – Featuring numerous UK Faces with sound track from Heather Small

Athens 2004 Olympics Opening Ceremony Photos – Construction and rehearsals

News Organisations

BBC – London 2012 – Sports

BBC – London 2012 – General News

Guardian Online – Olympics and the Media

Guardian Online – London 2012