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Volunteering at the Olympics is a thrill, but will it last?

There’s a lot of prestige to volunteering at the Olympics – working Tuesday mornings at the Salvo shop may not offer the same rewards. London 2012

Without volunteers, the Olympics would be a disaster. But will the “Games Makers” - the army of 70,000 Olympic and Paralympic volunteers - stimulate a spirit of volunteerism in and beyond London?

Volunteering and the Olympic story are strongly intertwined. The early modern Games used volunteers from sporting clubs and federations. More recently, the Olympics have actively recruited and managed tens of thousands of individuals.

The 2000 Sydney Games in 2000 had 45,000 volunteers. Arguably, this may have been the first time that Olympic volunteers received such recognition.

Whatever their motives for participating, the various roles undertaken by the Games Makers will be pivotal to the success of London 2012. Over many days they will work long hours without remuneration, doing jobs that would, by any normal standards, be considered mundane.

Few will come into direct contact with the athletes or with high profile celebrities – a reminder that it may be risky to sell the benefits of volunteering for mega-events on this basis. Mostly they will provide their services anonymously and will enjoy the experience.

Olympic volunteering can be a badge of honour, and for most the personal investment of time is a small price to pay for the unique experience.

Not every volunteer gets to meet a celebrity. The British Monarchy

Some have questioned the dependability of volunteers. Since they are unpaid will they turn up for their shifts? It’s interesting to compare the volunteer situation with that of paid employees at G4S security.

Worldwide headlines noted the company’s failure to secure the required 10,000 casual security staff. At the time of its launch in 2010, the Games Makers volunteer program was substantially oversubscribed, with a quarter-of-a-million applicants.

For the most part, the program has dodged the controversies of inadequate volunteer numbers or excessive turnover. Games organisers may be wishing that they could have deployed some of their Games-ready volunteers to security duties.

So why were unpaid volunteers were so willing to offer their contributions to the Games effort when paid jobs went begging? Maybe it’s the virtues of management in-house of the Games Maker program versus the evils of outsourcing to G4S; but that appears simplistic. Volunteers are by their nature intrinsically motivated once they have a made a commitment.

Legacy of volunteering

In the immediate pre- and post-event buzz, Games officials, the media, and other influence makers will laud the Games Makers for their contributions. Since the launch of the volunteer program, Lord Sebastian Coe, LOCOG Chairman, has maintained that the show could not go on without them.

The prospective legacy of this one-off, high profile and highly temporal groundswell of volunteer effort is difficult to assess. Games officials and governments enjoy celebrating legacies that arise from volunteering.

They claim they are a key social benefit of large mega events. But there is little hard evidence to suggest that these benefits are effectively realised.

It has been estimated that 40% of those who applied to the Games Maker program were new to volunteering and were inspired to participate because of the scale and profile of the event. Once the Games afterglow has dimmed, will these recent converts take up new roles helping out in their local communities?

Sydney Olympics volunteers liked it so much, they’re having a ten-year reunion. Peter Konnecke

London 2012 has encouraged those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds (commonly underrepresented in the volunteer statistics) to volunteer as a means of promoting positive inclusion outcomes, including improved employability and further skill development? Have they signed up?

The wider UK population will bask in the reflective glory of the Games and positive media reports showcasing the heroics of Games Makers. Will this upsurge of positive coverage be harnessed effectively across the country, bucking recent declines in volunteer participation?

The London organisers may likely have learned from other British volunteer engagement models. The Manchester Event Volunteers (MEV) program, which arose from the 2002 Commonwealth Games, is an enduring legacy initiative, matching Mancunians with event volunteering opportunities. Many experienced MEV recruits will doubtless be volunteering as Games Makers over the coming weeks.

As a further word of caution, Olympic volunteers often list their main motives for volunteering as the opportunity for a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience and the high profile event buzz. These intangibles are difficult to replicate in other volunteer settings.

Those who volunteer week in, week out, at their local museum, aged care facility or hospice do not enjoy the Olympic benefits of colourful and distinctive uniforms, special accreditation passes, opportunities to meet celebrities and ticker-tape parades.

Other forms of volunteering could lose out when compared with the enticements and shared memories of volunteering at events that capture national and world attention. If this is the case, it bodes ill for the Games as a potential catalyst. It is unlikely to transform goodwill and interest into an ongoing legacy of diverse, inclusive forms of volunteering for the UK.

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