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olympicsI arrived in Sochi, Russia, thrilled to be part of the world’s greatest sporting showcase. Stepping out of the cab at the Olympic village, I asked one of the official guides where I could find the volunteer events. He scratched his puzzled head, grunted, “Huh?” and checked his elaborate map. He spent several minutes consulting a static Russian voice on his enormous mobile phone. While he shouted into the contraption, I soaked in the palpable excitement of the noisy Olympic crowd filtering by. I was giddy with anticipation. Finally, the world would see the wonderfulness of our volunteers.
He got off the phone and showed me his map, drawing an X on an empty white spot. “There, you go there,” he said, then handed me the map and walked away. I followed the map, weaving my way in and out of colorful vendors and beautiful buildings until I was in an open field beyond the bustle of Olympic village. There, in the middle of the snowy field was a small industrial building with a hand-made sign that read, “Volympics”.
Gleefully, I entered the building. There were maybe a few dozen people scattered about on folding chairs. Family members, no doubt. I nodded to some folks sharing a bag of potato chips as I settled into my seat.
The first event was the “Booth Freestyle.” Team Major Illness Awareness and Team Animal Rescue had 10 minutes to sort through the enormous pile of random items piled in a corner of the building. The teams had to find a table, table cover and everything necessary to set up a booth showcasing their organization at a fictitious fair. You could feel the tension in the room, or maybe it was the lack of a bathroom nearby. The teams appeared. Team Major Illness Awareness looked nervously at Team Animal Rescue. Each four member team gripped the side rails and waited for the shot signaling the start. They sprinted or walked quickly, really into the arena, attacking the pile like I attack my closet after over sleeping. Finding the items they wanted, each team began to set up an attractive booth. Team Major Illness Awareness settled into making a giant macaroni sign on a poster board, their deft hands glueing the pasta into a giant heart shape. The captain of Team Animal Rescue shouted encouragement as the team stuck animal stickers to the tablecloth while drawing a huge smiling elephant on a white board.
An element of difficulty was added when several Olympic judges, simulating organizational staff walked by shouting “hurry up” and refusing to answer questions. Team Major Illness Awareness arranged give away pens in the shape of a pancreas while team Animal Rescue created paw prints out of jar grippers. The clock ticked away the time and the crowd shouted “three, two, one” and the buzzer sounded. The judges conferred and awarded points for artistic interpretation as well as speed. It was close but team Animal Rescue pulled it out by putting up a cute picture of their Executive Director being nipped by a rescued chihuahua.
I pulled out a granola bar while waiting for the next event. Office Downhill was an individual competition involving stuffing envelopes, data entry and filing. Rickety metal cabinets were wheeled into the arena while an old desk, obsolete computer and a mountain of flyers and envelopes on a card table were dragged into a corner. The first competitor, Museum Guide stepped confidently into the arena. She was given five files, a handful of data entry forms, and no instructions. When her time started, she ran to the file cabinets first, checking the names on the files, quickly sorting them into alphabetical order. She exuded confidence and I suspected she was a volunteer leader at home. She grabbed the file cabinet drawer and pulled but it would not open. It was locked! Panicked, she looked around then wisely searched for a key, finding it taped to the back of the cabinet. After expertly filing the information, she ran to the computer and pushed the button. It sputtered and slowly whirred, so she ran to the table and started stuffing envelopes while the computer booted. Her fingers expertly flew through the pile of flyers, and she ran back to the computer and finished entering the data. The time posted was 12:56:01. Hers was the time to beat. The next competitor, Thrift Store Volunteer, didn’t fare as well. She pulled so hard on the locked file cabinet that it fell over. She managed to complete the other two tasks, but was penalized for folding the flyers face out. The third competitor, Soup Kitchen Volunteer managed to find the cabinet key but shoved all the files into one drawer. He stuffed the envelopes cleanly, but ended up spilling the cold cup of coffee left by the judges on the computer desk. The data was soaked brown and unreadable. The fourth competitor, Hospital Gift Shop Volunteer, took one look at the scene, threw up her hands and said she never did office work in her life. And the final competitor, Youth Mentor Volunteer sped through the course, but got so frustrated with the lumbering computer that he threw it on the floor, therefore being disqualified. The dozen of us in the crowd cheered wildly for all the competitors as they took a bow. We waited in anticipation for the results. Obviously Museum Guide Volunteer was the winner, but the judges conferred and decided to give it to Soup Kitchen Volunteer because he was willing to work on a Saturday night.
The medal ceremony consisted of a nice lunch for all the volunteers with a speech telling them how important they were to their respective organizations. I didn’t get the opportunity to speak to the volunteers, but I’m thinking that they were pretty great people who took their volunteering seriously.
I left Sochi with renewed enthusiasm for volunteers and their incredible depth of talent. I think for a first Volympics, it was pretty good. I’m encouraged, because I heard some officials discussing the next one, and they are thinking about adding the De-Luge event, where volunteer managers are overwhelmed with requests, questions, tasks, phone calls, email, drop-ins, paperwork, problems, and spreadsheets. I may start training tomorrow.