Volunteerism: Importing a concept

It would be understandable if many observers were to conclude thus far that preparing for the 2004 Olympics remains a closed and elitist, not a populist, undertaking. On the organizational side, what we might term an iron triangle links (or perhaps chains together) the government, the International Olympic Committee, and the Games organizers (ATHOC) in this single and singular endeavor. On the financial side lie the big businesses sponsoring the Games, multinational communications firms broadcasting the events, and the consultants coming out of the organizational ears. Shiny new hotels will likely spring up to house visiting VIPs (a vexing question in the new environment, as discussed in last Friday’s column). Many people, however justly, think of the Games as an endless gravy train. Given all that, the very notion of a People’s Games itself seems like fanciful word play if not oxymoronic. It is partly to counter such perceptions that the Olympic organizers have embarked on an ambitious volunteer program for the Games. The more people who get involved in the effort, the more public support and interest will be generated. But there is more than a public relations exercise at work; volunteers have a role to play both from the conceptual/symbolic and practical sides of the Games. Every Olympiad relies heavily on tens of thousands of unpaid workers to do 1,001 different jobs and otherwise lubricate a massive logistical operation. And a small army of volunteers is also important not just for what it does but for what it represents, namely a manifestation of the spirit of sacrifice that is part of the Olympic ideal. Or so the thinking goes. A new concept? An Olympics volunteer drive might seem an unlikely vehicle for engineering radical social change on a national level, but some long-term change of attitude might be expected on a more modest scale. Though an outsider would never know it, considering the countless public demonstrations that clog city streets with monotonous regularity, the principle of volunteerism – meaning simply the offer by an individual of his or her unpaid services toward some social cause – is not strongly rooted in Greece. Many non-governmental organizations do operate here, but volunteerism itself is a concept more common to, for example, German-speaking or Anglo-Saxon cultures, which in many Greeks’ eyes are more commonly associated with laissez-faire capitalism than local activism. Yet in numerous local communities, in Britain, the USA, Germany and elsewhere, unsung volunteers perform valuable but often overlooked services for schools, libraries, and various community events that might seem insignificant or even corny in themselves, yet somehow strengthen the social net across social and political lines. It is this network of community cooperation that often gives local communities their character and which the Atlanta and Sydney Games organizers were able to draw on. A common bumper sticker in some parts, Think globally – Act locally would not resonate strongly in Greece, even though the Olympics, which convey a universal theme, combined with plenty of work to do at home, seem uniquely fitting for efforts to bring it about. National pride But for now, lacking such precedents, the Athens organizers have to rely more on ambition and appeals to national importance and pride. Though the Olympic Games may be a not-for-profit enterprise (and though there is an example right at the top, as ATHOC President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki is not being paid for her very considerable efforts), a hard sell will still be needed in order to put together and sustain a reliable volunteer army. There will be no pay and few perks, apart from a badge, a ballpoint pen and an outfit – and even that will mean little for a population that seems to dislike uniforms of any kind, perhaps due to authoritarian elements in the nation’s past. And there will be no free tickets to choice events. By the same token, volunteers are vital to such a huge operation. And with costs continually rising, the volunteer program will likely become even more crucial as the Games approach. As it stands, there is an anticipated need for around 60,000 people; six volunteer workers for every athlete, and some 2,000 volunteers for each of the 28 sports. They will do jobs, many of them small but crucial, that the (many fewer) paid employees can’t be spared for: answering phones, handing out programs, collecting tickets, working parking lots and directing traffic, helping out with test events in 2003 and the Paralympics, and shuttling visitors here and there. Of course, volunteers also need training; without it, to put it bluntly, they will just get in the way, as a smiling face and helpful attitude may be nice attributes (and, let’s hope, common ones when the time comes) but are not usually sufficient to execute most jobs. And those thousands coming from outside Athens will need to be housed. And they can also be a wild card. In Atlanta, volunteer drivers occasionally lost their way trying to find some of the smaller venues, and one bus was reputedly commandeered by a team frantic to make its venue and not be disqualified. Relying on daredevil Athenian drivers as volunteer chauffeurs might not always offer visitors the gentlest of introductions to the city; then again, those visitors might appreciate being taken on some thrilling rides. And there will always be some volunteers who are mainly interested in winning favors for cousin Stavros. Even so, any such risks are clearly outweighed by the great good that a well-run volunteer organization can do. Though Olympics volunteerism could potentially have a positive broader impact in the way Greeks relate to their society, a great number of volunteers so far are in fact from outside the country. Over half (54 percent) of expressions of interest as of this August have come from outside the country, including Greeks of the diaspora (17 percent), Cyprus (23 percent), and other countries (14 percent). And of the over 1,000 organizations expressing an interest so far, most (800) were from the diaspora. The numbers are impressive, but it is one matter to drum up initial interest, and another one altogether to ensure a cohesive, reliable corps of helpers that can be relied upon under the pressure of the actual event. And at some point it would be a bit unsettling to see too much of the work taken up by non-Greeks, since it is, after all, a Greek national project. Two other circumstances not usually considered as national assets could eventually work in favor of greater volunteerism. One is a growing unemployment rate, now over 10 percent, which would free up more people for the task. The other is a social security system that allows earlier retirement than in most other European countries, meaning that there are plenty of sprightly retirees who might like to roll up their sleeves for a healthy national cause. Privatizing businesses and establishing volunteer networks may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet in many ways both trends converge in that they imply ongoing, long-term efforts for the country to wean itself off notions that the government is there to serve every need. If the 2004 Games program (minus the volunteer drivers, please) can bolster these broader processes, so much the better.