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The Phenomenon Of Voluntary Activity In The Modern Olympic Games

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We will consider the development of the concept of Olympic volunteer from the first Games of the modern era up to the present day. It will show that, although the concept of the volunteer began to be more clearly defined in the eighties and nineties, in practice it can be traced back to the very first Olympic Games of the Modern Era founded by Pierre de Coubertin.

Our work comprised systematic analysis of the Official Reports of each Olympic Games, both winter and summer, up to the present day, and also a survey of the Olympic bibliography. An effort has been made to attain direct evidence from the participating volunteers themselves, although this of course was only possible in the case of Olympic Games after and including Berlin 1936.

The basic questions we posed ourselves at the outset were the familiar ones, what, who, how, when and why. What was the concept of volunteer in existence in the context of each Games? Who were the Olympic volunteers over the years? When did volunteer work exist in the Games and what did it consist of? How did they become volunteers? How were they recruited and trained and what planning took place? and why did the individuals involved decide to become Olympic volunteers?

These questions have to be addressed from a historical perspective, that is, through study of the intrinsic evolution of the Olympic Games and the increase in their popularity and in the level of popular expectation surrounding them, especially over the last twenty years. They must also be viewed in the context of the external social and political changes which have taken place in the eventful history of our 20th century.

The concept of the Olympic volunteer

In previous work, other specialists have defined and contextualised the concept of social volunteer. It has also become clear that the concept of volunteer differs widely in accordance with social and cultural differences and the nature of the volunteers themselves (religious and political convictions, sports and health factors, etc.), however, it is still possible to establish a number of basic points in common:

  • Voluntary commitment: that is individual, non-obliged commitment.
  • Altruism: a lack of monetary reward, non-profit motivation.
  • Social contribution: the task contributes in some way to society, it is socially useful.

That is, being a volunteer involves a commitment to act based on a free personal decision which is motivated by principles of solidarity and altruism. (2)

However, although the volunteer begins with a personal decision, volunteer work is a manifestation of solidarity which tends to be channelled through organisations, the latter being non-profit-making bodies. These organisations create settings which harness the individual’s motivation and desire to participate in society and strengthen the sense of responsibility and cooperation involved in this joint effort. This leads to the formation of social structures which have the effect of reinforcing civil society.(3)

The Olympic volunteer

The concept of the Olympic volunteer was first defined explicitly in an Olympic glossary produced as part of the Official Report of the Barcelona Olympic Games 1992: “the volunteer is a person who makes an individual, altruistic commitment to collaborate, to the best of his/her abilities in the organisation of the Olympic Games, carrying out the tasks assigned to him/her without receiving payment or rewards of any other nature.’ (4)

In the Barcelona Olympic Games then it was made clear that it was the Organising Committee which was to assign tasks to the volunteers and harness their contribution. This role of the Organising Committee had first appeared at the Lake Placid Winter Games in 1980, with the creation of a volunteer programme involving some 6,000 volunteers.

At later Games such as those of Los Angeles, Calgary and Seoul, the voluntary element was to become a basic link in the organisation of the Games. At present, this voluntary element is seen as vitally bound up with the sustainability of the Games.

However, prior to reaching this explicit definition of modern times, the concept of the Olympic volunteer went through a process of evolution parallel to that of the development of the social volunteer and the growing importance of sport. In fact, in modern listings of types of volunteers, the sports volunteers is an indispensable category.

Like the social volunteer, the sports volunteer sets out to act for the benefit of society, of his or her own free will, without the aim of economic or other benefits. The aim of this effort may be improved wellbeing for the community in general, a better quality of life for others, etc. (5) Organisations capable of harnessing these personal initiatives and undertakings are also needed.

There are sports organisations which include a stable or permanent volunteer element and others which create groups of volunteers to carry out certain, concrete projects and achieve given objectives. In both types, the stable volunteer organisation and the occasional one (which would be the case of the Olympic Games), we must also draw a distinction between activity carried out within a federation and activity which is outside this sphere.

For example, in a number of national federations, especially those with fewer members, professional roles are carried out by volunteers. In the early days of the Olympic Movement, this professional work was also performed on a voluntary basis. Pierre de Coubertin himself, with the support of friends and the heads of the contemporary sports associations, worked on a voluntary basis to create the International Olympic Committee and launch the Modern Olympic Games. (6)

The latest theories on sports volunteers tend to report a slump in voluntary action of the ongoing, permanent variety, whereas that associated with large-scale events is holding ground or growing in strength. Other viewpoints, more concerned with voluntary social work, are striving to define a new concept of volunteer which would be applicable to the present-day situation and to the foreseeable future over the next 10-15 years.

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In any case, the concept of Olympic volunteer has lived through its most glorious epoch in the decade of the 1990s and Sydney 2000 will undoubtedly be a key Olympics for redefinition of the concept of Olympic volunteer and for new applications for the future.

Evolution of the concept of Olympic volunteer

The evolution of the Olympic volunteer can be analysed from the perspective of what we have referred to as the intrinsic structure of the Games themselves and that of external social changes. We could define four basic stages:

  • From the Olympic Games of Athens 1896 to Berlin 1936. This first phase was characterised by the anonymous volunteer work carried out in federations and clubs and in the organisation of the Olympic Games themselves, all in keeping with the social and educational nature of sport in those years. The main volunteer efforts came from groups such as the boy scouts and the army.
  • From the London Games of 1948 to Montreal 1976. This phase was marked by the social and political situation of the times. Most of the Olympic Games held took place in the industrialised countries which acted as guarantors of the new political, social and economic dynamic which was being forged in the aftermath of the Second World War. There were numerous distinctive and particular features in the Games depending on the organising country (7) and its particular tradition of volunteer and social work. The overall importance of volunteer work continued to increase, groups such as the boy scouts and the army were still important, though the increasing efforts of individuals began to gain momentum.
  • From the Lake Placid Games in 1980 until those of Seoul 1988. This was undoubtedly the phase in which the present-day model of Olympic volunteer began to emerge. In the Lake Placid Games, volunteers were incorporated into the Organising Committee’s programme and by the time of Los Angeles their role had become fundamental. The Games at Sarajevo, Calgary and Seoul were all to embrace the volunteer element, though from different organisational perspectives.
  • From the Albertville 1992/Barcelona 1992 Games to those of Sydney 2000. Consolidation of the present-day model of volunteer included in the Organising Committee and in human resources planning. The ever-growing scale and dimensions of the Olympic Games – they are now considered to be ‘mega events’ – undoubtedly leads to an increasingly important role for volunteers in the mega structure which is necessary, not only for the holding of the Games, but also for their television coverage or for the parallel cultural programme.

The first Olympic volunteers: anonymity

In the early years the Olympic Movement grew thanks to the work of many people who worked on a voluntary basis to build up a minimum organisational structure. This process took place parallel to the development of federations in many sports, which also came about due to the voluntary efforts of the amateurs who formed the first sports clubs.

In Athens 1896, Paris 1900, St. Louis 1904 and London 1908 the word ‘volunteer’ did not explicitly appear in the Official Reports. Nevertheless, there is no doubting the altruistic motivation of those who participated in the organisation of the Olympic Games which were still small in scale and in which family ties and friendships were essential for successful organisation.

Volunteer groups: boy scouts and the army

In the early Games, apart from the presence of the army in performing functions given over to volunteers nowadays, the boy scout movement, officially founded in England by Baden-Powell in 1907 (8) , also played an important role.

The boy scouts’ contribution began at Stockholm 1912 and basically consisted of delivering messages, maintaining order and safety, helping the public and carrying our various physical functions, such as carrying flags and replacing obstacles: “there was a number of boy scouts and Varingian guards under the command of Messrs, B.E. Lithorin and E. Wernström, for the purpose of giving necessary aid to the public.”(9) This is the first written record of the great work to be carried out by the scouts in many Olympic Games and also of the Scandinavian voluntary spirit.

Pierre de Coubertin (10) himself referred to the work done by these boy scouts with this rather curious observation: “A record: a Swedish woman, Mrs. Versall, had six children who participated in the Games, the youngest as boy scouts enrolled to maintain order and deliver messages. This seems rather trivial. However, the IOC gave her a special Olympic medal.

The links of the boy scouts with the Games went further than purely organisational tasks. For example, an international meeting or jamboree of boy scouts began and was held every four years, following the Olympic pattern. Until the 1920s, sports competitions and parades of all those participating were also held at these jamborees. (11)

According to Nikolay Gueorguiev, the contribution of the scouts continued to grow in various Olympic Games before the Second World War, such as those of Antwerp 1920, Paris 1924, and, especially, Amsterdam 1928.

The scouts were organised into camps and helped out in providing service to the public and in ensuring safety. Once again we can refer to Coubertin’s ‘Memories’ in which he praised the spirit shown by the young at the Antwerp Games. (12) Similarly, we also find a reference to the boy scouts’ salute during an official ceremony at the Paris Games of 1924. (13) By the Chamonix Games, the boy scouts were participating in the opening and closing parades as flag bearers.

At the Berlin Games the boy scouts were replaced by members of the Nazi youth movement, ideological groupings diametrically opposed to the pacifist, naturalist and fraternal ideals of Baden-Powell. In fact, in the years previous to 1939, in both Italy and in Germany efforts were made to disband the scout movement, (14) which was later to play a role in a number of countries (France, for example) during the war in the resistance movement against totalitarianism and Nazi occupation.

After World War II, the boy scouts continued to participate in the Olympic Games. In Helsinki 1952, the scouts and other youth organisations played an important role, their main task being the delivery of messages, though they also did other work: “While the Games were in progress, 2,191 members of the department (1,617 boys and 574 girls) were engaged in unpaid work. Of this number, 59 squad leaders and 434 ordinary members sold programmes, 130 worked as ushers and 1,568 were employed as messengers”.(15)

These statistics from Helsinki 1952 were the first explicit mention of female volunteers, even though the first girl guides had been formed in France in 1912, also along the lines of the boy scout movement. Without any doubt, female protagonism among the volunteers was to increase significantly in later Olympics in parallel to their increased presence in civil society and politics.

All in all, the Games in which the scouts played the biggest role were those of Melbourne 1956. The Youth Organisations were composed of three blocks: the boy scouts, the girl guides and the members of the Air Training Corps. All of them worked on a voluntary basis and performed a variety of different roles. In the case of the scouts, more than 3,500 members participated from November 1955, in return for which they only received meals. (18) The scouts were present at 90% of the venues and, in all cases, the Arena Managers expressed their complete satisfaction with their efforts. As mentioned already, at Melbourne the scouts carried out numerous tasks, such as for example, helping the public and children, helping the police, reception and attention to distinguished guests and acting as guides for the delegates from the different sports federations who had congregated in the University of Melbourne.

At the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964, the spontaneous and indirect help provided by the boy scouts and other organisations was notable, where they were entrusted with raising the flags for brief periods of time, both day and night.(17) Once again in Japan, this time in Nagano 1998, the boy scouts played a clearly visible role in a given task the raising of flags at the Olympic Villages.

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