Spirit of service flickering in some, steadier in others

The number of prospective volunteers is indisputably large. Around 160,000 people came forward, when studies two years ago said that we should be happy with 50-60,00 applications. «We’re really satisfied,» said the general director in charge of volunteers for Organizing Committee Athens 2004, Dimitris Tziras. «Not only with the huge response, but also with the quality of the volunteers. We see a sincere desire to participate and that has great importance.» Results are already tangible. Over 6,000 volunteers have taken part in 39 sports events from August 2003 until today. «Another six events are due before the start of the Games,» Tziras said. Undoubtedly, getting 160,000 people to take part in the Olympic and Paralympic Games is a major achievement. But experience of previous Games shows that volunteer enthusiasm quickly drops, with the result that people abandon the whole project. On the very first day in Sydney, no fewer than 20,000 volunteers became discouraged and backed out. Short-term enthusiasm? The problem is one well known to the organizers. «Each event has to be prepared for people not turning up. This might happen at any time during the program, between the application and the interview, between training and the Games,» said Tziras. «We deal with the problem as we go along, especially when we have such a large pool of volunteers to draw on, as we do.» The Athens 2004 Volunteers Department decided to take the lesson from this less-than-pleasant experience of previous sports meetings, combining all the methods that have been tried before. «The system of meeting emergency needs is structured on three levels. First, there is a central pool of backup volunteers, most of whom are general volunteers, as well as some specialized personnel (e.g. doctors, life-savers). Then, each sector that uses large numbers of volunteers, such as the spectators’ service, has its own group of stand-ins. These groups can move around in the various sports facilities in the same area, like the Olympic Stadium or the Hellenikon Olympic Complex. Finally, there is a group that covers the 10 road races, which has its own backup system.» Valuable allies for every eventuality are the experienced volunteers to be found in the Greek Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, as well as those of the Greek Red Cross, who anyway are the three biggest pools of volunteers of the Games. «Our members, throughout Greece, were made aware of the situation right from the start and we responded immediately with hundreds of volunteers for whatever was asked of us,» said Girl Guides chief, Anna Kassimati. «Our experience is precious, because we have learned to work in an organized way and as a team,» said the head of the Boy Scouts, Isidoros Kanetis. «In the case of the Games, our contribution to the Paralympics, where there was a shortage of volunteers, was very important.» For volunteer organizations, it’s what happens after the Olympics that’s important. «The Olympics are a major incentive, despite some reactions. It may prove an excellent opportunity to cultivate, in Greeks, a willingness to do volunteer work. We shall see.» Contact with athletes and the impressive opening and closing ceremonies predictably sparked the most interest. According to Athens 2004 official statistics, most volunteers asked to work at the sports events, the ceremonies, in public and international relations, and in spectator and information services. What is happening, however, with the training process? Training Now that the recruitment period for volunteers is over, the huge task of training them remains. Training programs have already commenced and include general information about voluntarism and the Olympic movement, training volunteers to perform their roles and familiarization with the venue where they will be involved. In some cases, the test events were a valuable lesson. For volunteers that will be working at the Olympic Stadium, on-site training will have to wait till works are finished. In the four other Olympic cities (Thessaloniki, Patras, Iraklion and Volos), educational seminars have been scheduled for July, while Cypriot volunteers will be trained in Athens. Some of the special seminars in the three major sectors (technology, spectators’ service and public relations) will take place close to the time of the Games, so that volunteers from abroad can take part. Accommodation Nevertheless, the question of accommodation for volunteers might hold unpleasant surprises. Athens 2004, trying to avoid being turned into a travel agency, made it clear from the start that it will not be able to organize or facilitate accommodation. Large volunteer organizations have the infrastructure and networks to put their members up, but trying to find a room in a hotel in Athens during the Olympics sounds like an impossibility. Athens 2004 will intervene only in cases of Greek volunteers who live abroad, by bringing them into contact with corresponding associations in Greece. «For example, we put the Arcadian volunteers from Australia in touch with the Arcadian federation here, and South African Greeks with Greeks from South Africa who have returned to live here,» said Tziras. «The General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad has also offered considerable help.» Without doubt, the huge campaign to sensitize and inform the public played a major part in the recruitment process, which began on 30 January 2001, a year before applications were issued. The multi-level information campaign included: cooperation with various bodies (e.g. sports bodies, volunteer organizations), presentations, talks, announcements, articles, broadcasts, interviews and other activities. In November 2002, the media information campaign got off the ground, while the recruitment process was aimed at more specialized groups, in order to cover personnel gaps. An exact picture of the cost does not exist, officially at least. «It’s early days for taking financial stock. In the overall budget, there are funds which have been allotted to various sectors, depending on activity,» said Tziras, adding that «calculations of cost will take place after the Games.» Nevertheless, there are many who are already criticizing the overall cost of the recruitment of volunteers, and who felt the advertising campaign verged on brainwashing. «Those making this criticism have lost sight of the true meaning of voluntarism,» said Tziras. «It would be cheaper to hire someone for 15 days than have a volunteer. But we aspire to the dissemination of voluntarism and the Olympic spirit. Since the Barcelona Games (in 1992), the number of volunteers has increased and now they play a major role in the Games’ core. In Greece, where there is no organized tradition of voluntarism to the degree that it exists in Anglo-Saxon countries, we judged that we would need a more extensive campaign. «Moreover, we don’t need to just talk about what was spent, but also what will remain. As research that we carried out shows, two-thirds of volunteers want to continue voluntary work. So we have doubled the possible pool of volunteers, not only for large sports meetings in the future, but for other activities.» Anti-volunteers At the opposite extreme from the enthusiastic volunteers, impatient for the Games to start so that they can contribute to their success, is another, rather more cynical group. These are the people that are wholly opposed to the Games and regard Olympic voluntarism as callous exploitation. In the spirit of irony, they call themselves «nolunteers,» or anti-volunteers. How are they viewed by Athens 2004 officials of the Volunteers Department? «I think the best answer was given by the 160,000 prospective volunteers,» said Tziras. «I feel this criticism lacks depth. We’re talking about a major sporting, cultural and social event, which so many people want to take part in. The volunteers’ basic motivation is to help this national effort along. That’s the answer.»