Reminiscences of an Olympic Volunteer

12 years ago I was a volunteer at the Sydney Olympics. Don’t laugh, but I worked in security. I was based at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Hall in Darling Harbour (I included the ‘u’ because that’s how we spell it in Australia.)

Two days before Day One, I showed up at an enormous warehouse just west of the city along with thousands of other volunteers and got my full uniform kit. It was the year 2000, and the uniform reminded me of something I would have thought was cool in 1986. We looked like this:

Disclaimer: I am not in this photo

Fetching, yes?

On Day One I reported for duty along with about a hundred other people. We would work 10 hour shifts with a 30-minute meal break. We would have access to an unlimited supply of muesli (granola) bars, and I sensed that this detail was significant. If I was assigned to work at the other end of the venue (a 1/2 mile away) it could take most of the meal break to get to the cafeteria and back.

“Does anyone know how to work a walkie-talkie?” asked our leader. I thrust my hand in the air before I realized that I had never even seen one up close. My id apparently knew that this question was what would separate the next two weeks into ‘exciting and fun’ and ‘watching paint dry’. My id was right.

Along with the 8 others who raised their hands, I was taken to another room and kitted out with a roster, a clipboard and the aforementioned walkie-talkie. I was going to be a team leader. Not only a team leader, but “Gold Team Leader”. How could I not think to, “stay on target, stay on target…?”

I looked at the walkie-talkie, heavy in my hand. I sneaked some glances at my fellow team leaders while they turned theirs on and made adjustments. I did the same moves, a beat behind, and within about 90 seconds realized that pretty much anyone could have raised their hands when our boss asked the question. A piece of cake.

I met my team, we moved down to our part of the convention center – fencing that day – and I took them through their roles. Essentially, ‘security’ meant that we checked credentials at check points, which were posted between events and for anyone other than paying public to get into the venue.

I was relieved to discover that we would not have to actually enforce ‘security’, because the only move I had was to put my keys in between my fingers so as to rake them across an assailant’s face. And, I didn’t think that this was in keeping with the Olympic spirit. Besides, there was a team of paid security guards to assist the Gold Team with securing the venue.

I was disappointed, however, to see that as the days passed, fewer and fewer volunteers returned for their shifts. By the end of the 2 weeks, we were down to 1/3 of the original group. This meant longer shifts for those of us who showed up, and that many checkpoints within the venue and between events were left unattended.

Late into the games, came a highlight of my volunteer experience. I met Evander Holyfield. I was back-of-house at the Boxing, and he showed up with his entourage. They all had their Olympic credentials, but he didn’t; he had left it in the hotel. I wouldn’t let him in. To be clear, it was my job to not let him in. One of his minders asked if I knew who he was. I did not. After the 30-minutes it took one of his crew to go back to the hotel and get his credentials, I knew all about him.

His name meant very little to me, but when he said that Mike Tyson had bitten off part of his ear, I finally put two and two together. He was carrying an armful of stuffed toys (Olympic mascots), which he said were for his kids. I teased him, “Sure they are,” and he laughed a big laugh with his head thrown back. “It must look a little weird, huh?”

He was being very good-natured the hold-up preventing him from seeing the boxing. Finally his minder returned with his credentials, and he shook my hand and said it was a pleasure to talk to me. When I got back to where I was staying, I looked him up. He was a much bigger deal than I had thought.

I also met ‘Aussie Joe’ Bugner, the Australian boxer-turned-actor, who lost to Ali in 1975. He is a bit of a legend in Australia, so I knew who he was, and he came and hugged me at the conclusion of the boxing to thank me for my volunteer work during the games. Nice.

By the end of the games, I was working an average of 14 hours a day. I rarely got time to all the way to the cafeteria so the muesli bars were my main source of sustenance. I got to use my limited French a few times, but my very limited Spanish made a Spanish official laugh out loud. Apparently, instead of, “I don’t speak Spanish,” I told him that he didn’t.

As a volunteer I was given tickets to see Cathy Freeman’s victory at Olympic Stadium and to attend the Closing Ceremonies, not to mention all the bouts of boxing, wrestling, fencing, judo and weightlifting I saw. I met medalists, dignitaries, athletes and travelers from all over the world. It was brilliant.

At the London Olympics my good friend, Dawn Denton, is volunteering with the South African team. You can follow her adventures here. How privileged we are.

Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi

My barrista is Slovakian.

I know this, because I went in for coffee today, and I asked where he was from. The Olympics was playing on the huge flatscreen suspended on the wall, and I wanted to know who he was rooting for – so to speak.

“Hey, you guys just won a bunch of medals, didn’t you? In the kayaking?” I have no idea where I pulled that fact from, because I haven’t really watched the kayaking much.

He smiled. “Yeah. Three golds, in the paddling.” We chatted a bit more about that, which was far more interesting than our usual patter about the weather, and I could see that it made him very proud to talk about his country’s success.

I totally understand. Last week, I stood in a crowded classroom at lunchtime, surrounded by students and fellow teachers, and staring up at the giant TV screen on the wall. We were shouting “Come on!” to Stephanie Rice, as she swam half a body length behind the American girl. In that last 20 metres she surged forward and touched first to win her second gold medal and break the world record. The room erupted as we celebrated her win with all the other Aussies around the world who were within sight of a television. I was so proud – of her, and of Australia.

Last night I had tears in my eyes as I heard the Australian anthem yet again. We won gold in the 470 sailing – men’s and women’s – and as the young Perth women stood on the podium, grinning their faces off, I grinned with them – so proud. Then came the women’s triathlon result – Gold and Bronze! Brilliant! And that feeling is compounded as the medals keep coming.

Yes, there is little like the Olympics to inject a shot of national pride in even the hardest of hearts. Having said that, I do have one small confession. On the 18th, when Michael Phelps and the U.S. relay team were competing against us, I quietly hoped that we’d get Silver. I just wanted Michael to get his 8 medals. At any other moment I would have been screaming at the television, willing our guys to win, but the 8 medal thing transcends borders.

And we did win silver in that race, which is still incredible. You see, we are just a tiny country population-wise, so our pool of talent is much smaller than the U.S or even Great Britain. Yet we are hovering between 3rd and 5th on the medal tally. China has 61 times our population, but only twice as many medals. (I did hear yesterday, that if Michael Phelps were a country, he’d be 6th on the medal tally).

Australia has medaled in kayaking, diving, equestrian, sailing, triathlon, track, swimming, shooting and rowing – so far. We have much to be proud of.

So, when I hear the chant “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” coming from the Olympic stands, I can’t help but reply, “Oi, Oi, Oi!” We’re noisy buggers, but it’s ’cause we’re bloody proud to be Aussies.