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Owen: Should Olympic Volunteers Get Paid?

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Photo: Ivan Bandura via Wikimedia Commons

By David Owen |

Reading insidethegames’ excellent coverage of Max Hartung’s thinking on payments to Olympic athletes has prompted me to reflect properly on another remuneration-related issue that occurs to me whenever I attend a Games: ought Olympic volunteers to be paid?

It seems increasingly to be accepted, at least on my social media timelines, that corporate interns should receive a wage. To what extent, if any, do those who do so much of the donkey work at events we all enjoy constitute a comparable case?

The argument for the status quo appears to me to be based on the concept of exchange and barter: you offer your labor for a short period; in return you get, a) an experience that is usually mundane but can be truly memorable (or, more likely, can have truly memorable moments – “I ‘ad that Usain Bolt in my courtesy buggy once”, that sort of thing); b) the satisfaction of being an ambassador for your city/country while it is in the global spotlight; and c) a line for your CV that might help you get on in the world…

That is all fine – and you could, as many people undoubtedly do, take the view that if individuals are prepared to offer themselves to serve the Olympic cause on that basis – as tens of thousands regularly do – it is nobody’s business but theirs and anyway, why would you want to stop them?

Yet volunteers’ skills, even if they are deployed to pick up litter and point directions, are indisputably worth something – beyond two or three square meals and basic expenses, such as local transport, which I assume they are unquestioningly provided with.

Moreover, paying volunteers would in no way diminish the benefits they get from their brief attachment to the Movement, as enumerated above.

I must admit, I have long been instinctively uneasy about Olympic volunteering.

Asking myself why, this is what I come up with.

  1. If you are poor and could really do with the sort of leg up that a stint at the Olympics might provide, it must be extraordinarily difficult to put yourself in a position to be able to donate your labour for a month or two.

Unlike, say, students or better-off Olympic enthusiasts who may have the option of earmarking a few weeks’ holiday for the sake of an unusual and hopefully uplifting experience, chances are you are too busy trying to scrape together the cash required to get through each day to contemplate such an adventure.

To an extent, I cannot help wondering whether the culture of volunteering at pinnacle events with massive budgets isn’t a throwback to the old amateur days of the 19th century – the period when the roots of most modern sport, including the Olympics, were put down – when the absence of payment to athletes meant that only gentlemen could afford to compete.

  1. If you are poor/unemployed and you do manage to beat the odds by making it onto the Games program – and I am told that in the best-organized cases, genuine efforts to recruit from all nooks of society are made – is it a good signal to be sent that your time isn’t worth anything?

Wouldn’t it be much healthier to demonstrate to people in this position that by putting in a solid day’s work in a good cause, they can indeed put bread on the table?

  1. What would Olympic volunteers be doing if they weren’t at the Olympics?

Would they be tending their begonias or otherwise minding their own business at home?

Or would they be volunteering at their local hospice or youth club or sports event?

If the latter, then while the Olympics may foster a broader culture of volunteering, might they not also draw labor from the sort of grass-roots initiatives that help make local communities cohere and tick, albeit in the short term?

I do not have the data to be able to give informed answers to these sorts of questions; I wonder if anybody does.

In discussing the subject with one frequent sports volunteer, one sense of frustration was that experience tended not to be passed on from event to event, resulting in wheels needing continually to be reinvented – an issue the Movement has made good progress in addressing in some spheres.

Amid much that is positive, this volunteer also pointed to sessions which are clearly overstaffed – a consequence of the labor you overstaff with being cost-free – and to the indispensability of a well-resourced volunteer support system.

Would it not be prohibitively expensive to pay everyone with a role at the Games?

Well, there would of course be a cost: if you paid 70,000 Summer Games volunteers £100 a day for on average 40 days, your price tag would be £280 million ($370 million).

Not cheap, but about the equivalent of two or three large-scale Olympic venues.

With host-cities now being encouraged more and more to use existing facilities, perhaps the money that would once have been spent on frequently extravagant new sports infrastructure could be channeled directly into the host community in the form of wages.

Who knows, that might have spin-off benefits for the Olympic Movement by, for example, making Olympic referendums a bit less difficult to win.

I have not entirely made up my mind about this, but I do think there should be a strong onus on organizers of elite sports events with multi-million-dollar broadcasting and sponsorship deals to explain in detail how they spend the money they effectively save on volunteers’ non-existent wages.

And I would love to see some worthwhile analysis of the past 35 years or so of Olympic volunteering.

In the meantime, it will be no bad thing if the Hartung initiative on behalf of Olympic athletes sparks some serious-minded scrutiny of how the billions raised by the Movement each quadrennium are actually spent.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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