NEWS

The smiles and willingness of Olympic volunteers were among Athens’s greatest assets in 2004

All 44,503 of them were magnificent. Greek and foreign visitors agreed that the smiles and willingness of the volunteers were among the «gold medals» that Athens won by holding the Olympic Games. Overturning all predictions to the contrary, there were volunteers, and they were numerous, in good spirits, and, in the end, they showed that there is a potential for volunteerism in Greece. Non-governmental organizations, which so far have struggled to pull together 10-20 volunteers, hope there will be a sequel and that Olympic volunteerism will not be just a brilliant interlude. Above all, it has put an end to doubts about unpaid service and its benefits. Everything went well, «not just in terms of impressions, but at an administrative level,» Dimitris Tziras, Athens 2004 general manager for volunteers, told Kathimerini. «The volunteers who worked at the 37 athletics and 27 non-athletics venues made a huge effort. For example, there are people who went to the airport in the morning and left late at night. Of course, there was an oversupply of volunteers at some venues. In fact, the backup team of 500 was never completely used. In the end, we sent them off in groups to the venues so they could satisfy their desire to experience the atmosphere of the Games.» The only exception to the surplus of volunteers was for the 4,000 positions as drivers, for which there were only 2,500 volunteers. «The volunteers had no desire for this position and so, in collaboration with the Manpower Organization (OAED), we employed 1,000 people for two months.» The next – and final – stage for the Athens 2004 volunteer directorate is the Paralympic Games. «The volunteers will not exceed 7,000-8,000. We are at the final stage of confirming the posts to be offered. The problem is that the Paralympics come at a difficult time, when we lose a lot of our staff due to university examinations and the start of the school year. But I think everything will go well.» The following day The big question is what will happen to volunteerism after the Paralympic Games. Will the, albeit brief, contact that thousands of people had with volunteerism help bring about a change in attitude? Tziras is a realist. «I’m not optimistic or pessimistic,» he says. «I went to the facilities and the venues every day. I saw that even those who started doing it for a joke or in the hope of making professional or other contacts did their best for a national goal. There has to be a follow-up. But Athens 2004 is not a volunteer organization. We used the expertise of large volunteer organizations to attract people, but we didn’t ‘borrow’ their volunteers as they did in Sydney. People came to us one by one, not in groups, with the exception of the Red Cross and the Scouts. «Only a third of our volunteers had had any previous experience in volunteer work, but two-thirds say they want to continue with it. The incentive of the Games went beyond the glamour and the medals. I hope they’ll find a way.» How can that be done? «We are obliged by law to destroy the personal data of volunteers after the Games and not to hand it over [e.g. to NGOs]. So what is needed now is for organizations to attract the people that have become aware. It can’t come under a state mantle because the public is suspicious of the State. They’d be more likely to go and clean a beach if an organization suggested it than if the local municipality asked them to.» What participants say As for the volunteers themselves, their opinions vary. Some are unlikely to go in for another form of volunteer work, while others are already seeking it. Still others will go back to the kind of volunteer work they were already engaged in. «I’d willingly be a volunteer again at a similar event, for example, an international athletics meeting,» 22-year-old teacher Marialena Dourlia told Kathimerini. «I’ll never forget my experience of the Olympic Games. Everything was amazing and beyond our expectations. But September is when I have to look for work. So at this stage, it would be difficult for me to give my time to some other volunteer work. Perhaps at a later stage, when I’m settled in terms of work. I know lots of people who’d like to do more, but it’s difficult to get going on your own.» Yiannis Boulmetis, 63, a retired sailor from Andros, is looking for ways to keep up volunteer work. «I filed my application to the volunteers’ directorate eight months ago. It was a unique occasion for so many Greeks to get together to give, not to take. First I think we need to create an association. Then we can look for means of action, like sending a group of volunteers to Beijing, planting a tree, or helping out during natural disasters.» Some who had been involved in volunteer work before the Games will simply continue. Poppy Fykiroi, 50, has been a member of the Greek Guides for 15 years: «I firmly believe there will be a follow-up. The Games volunteers have realized how much they have to offer. «Of course, helping out at a two-week international meeting is not the same as helping a person who needs you. But I spoke to many volunteers, and the young ones especially are enthusiastic about their experience. If volunteerism is forgotten, it will die out. People need to be encouraged to find out that they can offer their services. Perhaps humanitarian and ecological organizations should be more active in this.» Silent volunteerism Non-government organizations need volunteers who can spare some time. «We make a huge effort just to get 10-15 dedicated volunteers to help us with a huge range of things, from the simplest, such as tidying a storeroom or taking someone to an office, to the more complex, such as offering legal services, translating documents or teaching Greek,» Petros Mastakas, director of the Greek Refugee Council, told Kathimerini. «The truth is that regular volunteer work doesn’t have the range or the brilliance or the publicity of the Olympic Games. And we don’t have the financial means to run a campaign to get volunteers. It’s only by word of mouth or because of some event. But the feeling of offering, which the Games volunteers certainly experienced, is incomparable.» «The volunteers did a great job» said Yiouli Trihili, 62, a volunteer for the past 25 years at the Greek Red Cross. «I’d very much like them to get to know the other, ‘silent’ volunteerism. In addition to other Red Cross activities, I work with the elderly. We go to their homes, help those who can’t look after themselves or who just need some psychological support or company. «I think how much those young, lively Olympic volunteers could offer. There are elderly people who live alone and only need a little company. For instance, a woman recently told me that she is happy even to see a bill arrive because it’s as if someone was paying her attention. «So I want to advise them with all my heart to give a little of their time if they can to people who are in so much need. When you give, you get more back than you give. All they have to do is try it out.»