Volunteers are key to Games

ATHENS – At the last Olympics in 2000 the volunteers were so impressive they even made a Swiss lawyer burst into song. International Olympic Committee (IOC) attorney Francois Carrard was so enthused by Sydney’s «47,000 heroes» that he gave reporters his own rendition of a song volunteers had serenaded the crowds with at the central railway station on the eve of the closing ceremony. Now, with one year to go until the Games begin again, Athens organizers (ATHOC) are battling to recruit their own inspirational choir. Greece is the birthplace of the Olympic movement, but it is also a country with no tradition of volunteering, in contrast to Australia where 17 percent of citizens regularly offer their time for free. Although the ancient Spartans had three volunteers for every suicidal mission, it has proved a tougher assignment to persuade present-day Greeks to give up just two weeks of their time. Katerina Athanasiadou, a teacher at Thessaloniki’s school for the blind and one of the first to offer her services, said there should be no excuses for her compatriots not to get involved. «It is nothing for every Greek to offer the 15 days he or she must dedicate to this holy cause to help in the staging of the Olympic Games,» she said. The 33-year-old mother-of-one said that the praise heaped on Sydney’s volunteers had encouraged her to apply. «We must change our way of thinking and realize that nothing is difficult,» she said. ATHOC initially aimed for a pool of 150,000 applicants, from whom they planned to select 60,000 suitable candidates. By August officials said they had received 93,000 applications and had trimmed their target to 120,000. ATHOC volunteer program manager Olga Kikou acknowledged that her growing army of helpers could make or break the homecoming Games. «Volunteers have become a determining factor in the success of the Games,» she told Reuters. ATHOC officials have turned to diaspora Greeks, who make up more than 11 percent of applicants, both to boost numbers and add experience. Irene Anagnostou, 42, a psychologist working in Veria in northern Greece, picked up the volunteering bug growing up in the US and is keen to take part in Athens. «It gives me the opportunity to go around the world in 10 days, while remaining in my own country,» she said. For many domestic applicants, volunteering is a patriotic choice. Panayiotis Voudouris, 30, believes the Games will boost the country’s image abroad. «I want something good to happen, something good for Greece,» he said. This sense of a national mission has helped to draw applicants from more traditional sectors of Greek society. Lambrinos Bourlesas, a Greek Orthodox priest, is confident the experience will be worthwhile: «I think that you get back tenfold what you give. The satisfaction is such that it cannot be repaid,» he said. Father Bourlesas is confident his flock can cope without him during Games time. «I will only be away from my parish for a few days, to be by the side of those people who need me those days,» he said. Work concerns have deterred others, though. Takis Lambropoulos, 55, a senior executive at the Athens office of a high-tech multinational, would like to volunteer but is concerned about missing work. «It could come down to a trade-off between a holiday and taking part in the Olympics. I may have to leave it to younger hands,» he said. With this in mind the average Athens 2004 volunteer is set to be younger than his or her Sydney counterpart, according to officials. «Younger people have fewer responsibilities,» explained Kikou, who said that more than two-thirds of applicants to date were in the 18-34 age bracket. While they are still playing the numbers game, organizers are counting on Greece’s famous last-minute factor to boost homegrown volunteers as the Games approach.