Bearing down, Sochi-style, for volunteers

SOCHI, Russia -- For those of us lucky enough to live in Los Angeles,  it's both normal and yet incredible what inevitably happens when there's some sort of Olympic-themed event in town. It has already been 26 years since the 1984 Summer Games. And yet, whenever there's something Olympic going on, it's all but guaranteed that someone in the crowd will, unprompted, announce both that he or she was a volunteer at those 1984 Games and that it still ranks way up high there on the list of life's great experiences.

Which is why being here, in Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Games, is -- among many reasons -- so intriguing.

There's no real volunteer culture in Russia.

And that's a fact they're trying to change -- indeed, already making some small headway -- with the Sochi Games as catalyst. A "new page in our country," Dmitri Vityutnev,  the Russian official overseeing the volunteer effort, said in a speech  here Thursday.



That there is a Russian ministry official in charge of volunteering speaks to the nature of how things are different here than in, for instance, the United States, where the tradition is firmly established and is hardly considered a state function.

That there is a Russian ministry official in charge of volunteering also speaks, loudly and clearly, to how an Olympics can produce a legacy that extends beyond the construction of, say, a ski jump ramp -- and how that legacy doesn't have to wait until a Games is over to become real.

"The volunteers are a new generation -- like the generation in the mid-'60s called the baby boomers," said a 19-year-old university student, Ekaterina Tskhakaya, a volunteer at a 10-day workshop here for what's called Generations for Peace.

All six prior Generations for Peace workshops -- the outreach project aims to use sport as a means to defuse conflict -- have been held in the Middle East. The program was launched by Prince Feisal of Jordan and his wife, Princess Sarah, a couple increasingly influential in International Olympic Committee circles.

This seventh workshop is here, in Sochi -- in part a reflection of the growth of the Generation for Peace brand and in part a mini-model for some of the initiatives the Russians aim to promote before, during and after the 2014 Games.

Like the concept of volunteerism.

Most people in the world will never attend an Olympic Games in person. For that matter, even in a city staging the Games it may not be all that easy to score a ticket.

Those two reasons explain why the reach of the movement arguably finds its greatest one-to-one in-person connection in one of two ways:

The journey of the Olympic flame relay.

And volunteering.

An Olympics, Summer or Winter, is now such a grand-scale undertaking that it would be impossible to run a Games without volunteers. The London 2012 organizing committee volunteer effort, for instance, makes for Britain's biggest post-World War II volunteer recruiting campaign.

London 2012 organizers need 70,000 volunteers. They announced Thursday that more than 100,000 have already applied, 2012 Games chairman Seb Coe telling the Associated Press he is "thrilled with the response we've had."

A volunteer force that's sub-par can make for a major Games buzz-kill. On the other hand, a great volunteer crew indisputably makes a great Games great.

Wilfried Lemke, the United Nations' special advisor on the use of sport as a development and peace-building tool, said here earlier in the week amid a presentation to the Generations for Peace group -- 57 delegates from 11 nations -- that what he recalls most about the 2008 Beijing Games is the volunteer spirit.

"I might forget who won the 5,000 meters in track and field. But," he said referring to an 18-year-old volunteer, Wang Yang, who helped look after him in Beijing, "I will never forget the kindness of how she welcomed me with a ni hao every morning," Chinese for hello and welcome.

It's foolish to pretend that such one-on-one goodwill doesn't hold the potential for positive political, diplomatic and business consequences.

There are roughly 20-some million Australians and before the 2000 Sydney Games there were doubts in some quarters about the ability of a nation that small to pull it all off. Now those Games are remembered as one of the best-ever, if not the best, and in significant measure because the volunteers were so incredibly friendly and helpful.

"I've had successive prime ministers tell me that when they travel other world leaders want to talk to them about the Sydney Games," the head of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, said in an interview last month marking the tenth anniversary of those Games.

Vityutnev on Thursday handed out a passport-sized booklet to the Generations for Peace audience, and for the six Russians among the 57 it probably held extra significance -- Vityutnev saying the idea is that volunteers will fill the booklet just like you fill a real passport, and that a record of such volunteer service will be promoted as a career-builder.

Russia is hardly the only country in this part of the world confronting -- in some cases again, in some anew -- the concept of volunteerism.

In Serbia, "we have had to build it up again like a phoenix," said Andrej Pavlovich, one of the 57 in the audience. A 30-year-old English teacher, he served as a supervisor in the organizing of more than 10,000 volunteers for the 2009 University Games in Belgrade. A "milestone," he said.

They're looking for 25,000 volunteers for the Sochi 2014 Games.

There were 10 on hand here Thursday at the Generations for Peace workshop, identifiable in their white T-shirts with black sleeves or blue polo shirts.

"Hey, every1! I'm a Volunteer!" Dana Vorokova wrote in the volunteers' newsletter (already -- a volunteers' newsletter). "It's G8!"

Ekaterina Tskhakaya also contributed to the newsletter. She wrote, "The obligations of volunteers have no limits. You can never know what kind of situation you will face, and when.

"You must always be ready to take on any job and this is what makes our work exciting. It starts from stuffing refrigerators with water and providing delegates with pens to helping the lecturers make their presentations and translating to royal highnesses.

"You know, when sending applications to participation in the event you never know what surprises are waiting for you. I love this feeling of getting involved in all sorts of activity, gaining all-around experience, investigating and which is more important -- making your own contribution to the event."