London 2012 Olympics puts the glam into volunteering

The popularity of London 2012's 'Games Makers' may boost volunteerism – and help the government's much-derided effort to encourage Britons to help out in austerity-hit areas.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
A volunteer indicates the direction for the Olympic Park as visitors arrive at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 29, in London.

Clad in eye-catching red and purple outfits created by the designer Stella McCartney, the London Olympics’ unpaid army of 70,000 volunteer "Games Makers" has been one of the Games’ success stories.

From shepherding fans between venues to helping with more specialist tasks – often adding an unscripted touch of humor – they are likely to be remembered second only to medal winners in the UK as most visible human vestige of the Games.

In fact, as the 2012 Olympics nears its close amid satisfied murmurs from more than a few initial skeptics, talk is turning to the Games Makers’ potential legacy in terms of boosting volunteerism, and perhaps even breathing new life in the government’s much maligned Big Society project to encourage the public to step into gaps created by austerity-driven cuts.

“It’s really made me appreciate the value of volunteer work, how it is often undervalued, and want to carry on doing more after the Olympics,” says Andrew Butler, a young volunteer who has been providing technical support to synchronized swimming judges in the Olympics aquatics center.

The Games come in the wake of a controversy earlier in the summer over a security company’s use of unpaid job seekers to steward the queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations – a mistake that does not appear to have been repeated this time around.

Mr. Butler, who has a BA in sports and coaching, says that affair illustrates the complexities surrounding unpaid work.

“With the Olympics, there is a very tangible overall goal and you can see how your work is part of that much bigger process so it’s a question of how to replicate that,” he adds.

8 million volunteer hours

The statistics tell their own story. A quarter of a million people applied to be a Games Maker. The 70,000 who were successful will have carried out a total of 8 million volunteer hours.

“Voluntary service is a sound Tory instinct,” argued an editorial in the Conservative-leaning broadsheet, the Daily Telegraph, sensing the potential for political capital. “The Conservatives should not hesitate to champion it. The aftermath of the Olympics could afford [prime minister] David Cameron a chance to embrace a cause that would give his leadership ideological coherence and would resonate both with his natural supporters and the community at large.”

Experts working in the volunteer sector have been heartened, but urge caution.

Mike Locke, director of public affairs at Volunteering England, the national charity for volunteering that has been providing advice since Britain was preparing its bid to host the Olympics, said his body had concerns more widely about volunteers coming in to do work arising from cuts in public services and were watching developments closely.

Nevertheless, he described the Olympics as a tremendous demonstration of what could be achieved with the help of volunteers.

“In some ways, it is unrepeatable because we are not going to host another Olympics or Paralympics for quite some time, but what is important, though, is that those who have volunteered have had a good experience,” he said. “There is also a momentum that will carry on in London, where people have been on the streets as part of what is called the London Ambassadors program.”

Terry Ryall, CEO of Vinspired, a charity that connects teens and younger people with volunteering opportunities, said the Games had inspired a new group to get involved in volunteering.

“I was lucky enough to go to some events and was struck by how the characters of the Games Makers became part of the experience, when it came. For example," she says, "to just making people laugh as they were coming and going.”

“I don’t think I’m as optimistic as others about the legacy for volunteering," she continues. "With such a big brand like the Olympics, of course you are going to want to be involved. These volunteers are getting up early, sometimes doing 8 to 10 hours shifts and so there is the prospect some will say ‘been there, done that’ - although there are others will seek other opportunities to volunteer again.”

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