For Beijing's Olympic volunteers, the rules are many

It has carefully vetted and trained 1.7 million people who will do everything from answering questions to presenting medals

Carol Huang
Help is Here: Beijing has started to roll out 550 booths where volunteers offer tourists assistance.
Carol Huang
Help is Here: Wang Xiao offers tourists assistance.

Ms. Cai, crisp and efficient in her bright blue Olympic volunteer shirt, has a list of instructions to remember.

As a helper at one of 550 information booths being wheeled out across Beijing, each one covered with pictures of happy volunteers, she's supposed to match that image, answering tourists' questions with a smile and meeting whatever need arises.

But after each interaction, out comes the red logbook – where Cai, who didn't share her first name, makes a careful tally of hours worked, people helped, papers distributed, and media outlets spoken to.

This isn't your typical volunteer operation, run by independent groups working to improve a local school or save old homes from developers' bulldozers. This is volunteerism Beijing 2008 style – managed rigorously by the state and for the state.

"The government has its own structure to organize volunteers [and] prefers such ways rather than to let the volunteers organize themselves," says Jia Xijin, deputy director of the NGO Research Center at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

As volunteer efforts have sprouted in recent years, the Chinese government has encouraged a "volunteer spirit" – but not nongovernmental organizations.

To be considered legal, NGOs must register with and essentially be run by the government. The government sometimes partners with nonregistered groups, but in limited scope. In its eyes, NGOs should be "assistants to the government in social-service providing," says Professor Jia.

The difference in treatment of registered and nonregistered groups is stark. The Red Cross, a "government NGO," says it has 20 million members; the Communist Youth League (CYL), 75 million. The biggest nonregistered NGOs, by contrast, are thought to have about 20 people – without legal status, they have trouble fundraising and may not open multiple branches.

The government doesn't want NGOs to create "social disorder," Jia explains.

While local NGOs won heaps of praise for their postquake relief work in Sichuan Province, for example, the government has not yet adjusted policies to give them more freedom, as some had hoped.

Olympics volunteers, on the other hand, aren't seen as threats. Quite the opposite: They're officially helping pull off a historic national coming-out party.

Volunteers should be "representatives of China's peaceful development image," said Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games (BOCOG), at the corps's official launch in May.

Indeed, the volunteers are chosen and trained deliberately. "There is no host like Beijing which has taken so much trouble and effort" to prepare its volunteers, writes Guoqi Xu, author of "Olympic Dreams: China and Sport, 1895-2008," in an e-mail.

BOCOG spent three years recruiting and vetting more than 2 million applicants, in coordination with the CYL. Earlier this year it put potential volunteers through "tryouts" at other sports competitions in Beijing, where evaluators watched them navigate stadiums and interact with guests.

"BOCOG has looked high and low for quality people," says Jeff Ruffolo, a senior adviser with the organization.

Volunteer Wang Xiao, for example, a rising junior at the top-ranked Peking University, is confident, articulate, and smiles a lot. She also works hard: For seven days before her Olympics-application exam, she says she spent all her spare time in the library studying Olympic history, Beijing tourist sites, and guidelines for helping the handicapped, then practiced with friends for the interview. "It was fun," she says.

Now, as one of 100,000 "Games volunteers" who will be stationed at sports venues as ushers, Ms. Wang has been memorizing seating maps and exact sentences for dealing with unruly spectators.

Four hundred thousand "city volunteers" like Cai, who are manning booths across Beijing, have had to learn directions, bus schedules, first aid, and Olympic trivia, not to mention brush up on 5,000 years of Chinese history.

The most strenuous preparation, though, went to the 800 young women selected as cheerleaders or "ceremony hosts." The former are the elite 400 of 200,000 volunteers who will cheer for whichever team needs it. They're halfway through five weeks of intensive training.

Another 400 ceremony hosts, who will present medals to athletes, have been working even longer. Exercises in poise include "standing in five- to six-inch heels with jaws tucked in while balancing a 16-page book on their head and keeping a sheet of paper between their knees, for at least an hour," the BOCOG website notes.

The remaining 1 million "social volunteers" will be posted around the city to help people across Beijing's crowded streets and keep an eye out for troublemakers.

BOCOG has also taught helpers about volunteerism, a fairly new concept. It enlisted independent NGOs to help, but teachers were neither identified with their groups nor allowed to tell students about them, says Zhai Yan, whose Huizeren Volunteer Development Center participated.

And while BOCOG's drive to train so many has raised awareness of volunteerism, that may not benefit NGOs directly, says Zhang Wei, director of the Beijing Horizon Education Culture Development Center. "I don't think many Olympics volunteers will go on to join NGOs."

At her booth, Cai flips through her team's logbook, noting proudly that they helped 170 people on their first day, and have helped 200 to 300 a day since.

Like her six colleagues, the graduate student had done little volunteer work; she'd taught kids once a week for a semester. Her Olympic efforts are an exception prompted by the historic event. "I would feel bad if I didn't participate," she says.

Still, she adds, her experience as an Olympics volunteer has made her want to do more. "It feels good to help people and hear them say, 'Thank you,' " she says.

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