Inspiring a generation?

After a summer of excitement, emotion and enthusiasm, the "Games Makers" were recognised as the true heroes of the Olympic Games. Gwen Jing writes of her experience as a volunteer.

This week I received a letter from the Prime Minister. He writes that he wants to thank me "personally" for the "part you played in making the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games such a huge success".

Clearly, however "personal" Mr Cameron intends, I was but one of the seventy thousand volunteers at the Games. But everyone likes to feel a bit important, don't they?

In all honesty, my decision to volunteer at the Olympics was a hazy one, and so was the whole process that led up to it. I sent off my application two years ago with enough enthusiasm, but I came out of my interview disappointed because I was not allocated to the division I wanted. Since then I've gone through the whole procedure quite disillusioned. I put off attending the various training sessions because I regarded a trip into London (shamefully only half an hour by train from either my home or uni) for something so ‘insignificant' as a waste of time and money. Besides I knew hardly anyone around me who was volunteering; most were looking for jobs or internships that could either add value to their career or earn some holiday money and, quite frankly, games making would give me neither. My shifts schedule did not make it any better with the 5am starts, and even when collecting our volunteer gadgets and uniform, all I could think of was what a horrible colour combination it was.

But this was before I understood the ethos behind volunteering. As I discovered during my shifts, there is something distinctly satisfying about working hard and helping out without being rewarded for it otherwise. I did work hard - 10 hours a day on my feet, pointing this lady to where she wants to go, directing that gentleman to his seat; reuniting this lost little girl with her daddy, returning that spectator's lost camera. I felt rewarded every time I played my bit. At first I was surprised at how committed all the volunteers were despite not being bound by any form of contract. I met Games Makers who commuted daily from places as far as Birmingham, which plainly put my efforts to shame. But thinking back it made sense – everyone was there because they wanted to be; nothing was stopping them from not being there so whoever did turn up was there whole-heartedly.

Besides, what drew me to volunteering in the first place was my passion for sport and the international spirit that the Games embrace – and in this regard, the experience did not disappoint. Every day was exciting. I was rotated around ExCel's seven different sports arenas, assigned a different role and a different team to work with every day. You could never know what might happen - perhaps a controversy in the competition to make it memorable - or who might happen along: whether it was bumping into an athlete backstage, Boris Johnson walking into the weightlifting, Cameron and Putin watching the judo or Kate Middleton coming to watch the boxing. I became immersed in sports I would never have thought to watch or understand otherwise. I met spectators and athletes from all over the world whom I would never have met otherwise. I worked with volunteers from all over the country, a mix of young and old from all sorts of backgrounds, to whom I would never have spoken otherwise.

The environment was stimulating, international and atmospheric. The crowd surrounding the fields of play filled each arena with roars and cheers which trembled and shook the stadia. Even in the workforce area, volunteers and soldiers alike having lunch cheered and clapped for the athletes we watched on the TV screens. Never have I seen so many people so diverse yet so united in their actions and feelings. It was a sensation hard to capture in film or in words, unique to those who were part of it.

Evidently this Olympic buzz spread beyond the sports arenas through to the rest of London and beyond. On the train and on the streets, people were actually talking to each other. For the first time I saw the polite, aloof and professional characteristics which so define Britishness transform into a warm, friendly aurora of excitement.

In time, I even learnt to appreciate the uniform. Not that I felt any more fashionable, but it acted as a great signalling mechanism. Every purple and red clad stranger was a friendly face belonging to the same family of volunteers that we could chat to in a common language. The flip side was that I was never really off duty whilst in my purple and red; spectators often asked me directions on my journey to or from work – I could only try my best and cross my fingers I hadn't pointed them the wrong way. I had people approach me to ask for my volunteer shirt as a souvenir or whether any part of the uniform was available to the public. And so I learned the value of my uniform – it was also something unique to those who were part of it. I earned it and, as I told the international journalist who interviewed me at ExCel, am proud to have worn it as an ambassador for the Games in the country I live in.

But at the end of it all, let's not kid ourselves; despite the formality of my "personal" letter from the Prime Minister and my signed certificate from Seb Coe, I'm confident that Mr Cameron and Lord Coe have no more of a clue of who I am than if I stayed at home watching TV. But for someone like me (who will never make it as an athlete, believe it or not), the true value in volunteering was that it was a means to be involved, to say that yes, I wore my uniform and yes, I did play my little part in a Games which athletes, spectators and myself alike will remember for a long, long time.

Gwen Jing

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest