They're scattered around Vancouver clad in blue jackets, as ubiquitous as the city's rain. There are 18,500 volunteers at this year's Olympics who are helping ticket holders find their seats at venues, giving directions to confused guests wandering the streets, driving around dignitaries and printing out stat sheets for cranky, sleep-deprived journalists. Some 95% of them are Canadian, and though the athletes from the host country are trying to toughen up under the "Own the podium" rallying cry, the Canadian volunteers are living up to their country's reputation for being incredibly gracious and friendly. The rest come from places as far away as China, Russia and New Zealand.
The volunteers must pay their way to Vancouver and use up precious vacation days, or else take unpaid leaves, from their day jobs. They subject themselves to endless pestering over 10-hour shifts. They do it for the perks, right? Aren't the volunteers guaranteed tickets to a few choice events? "Oh no, nobody gets anything for free," says Sharon Schapansky, an accountant from Penticton, B.C., who chose to forego billable hours in order to drive around the doctors from the International Olympic Committee. "The IOC members get the tickets; we have to pay like everyone else."
For every three days the volunteers work, however, they get a sticker with a picture of Quatchi, one of the Olympic mascots, stamped on the back of their identification badge. For every Quatchi sticker, they might get a pin or some other small token of appreciation. And once they get three or four Quatchi stickers, rumor has it, the volunteers get a Swatch.
So why do these folks work so many hours? "It's a chance to be part of one of the biggest events in the world," says Kalum Iverson, 33, an oil company account manager from Langley, B.C. He's also driving around dignitaries. "I didn't want to miss out." Iverson remembers waking up in the middle of the night during the 1998 Olympics to watch the hockey games being broadcast from Nagano, Japan. Since then, he has wanted to be part of the Olympics in any capacity.
Iverson, a hockey nut, did score two free tickets to a cross-country skiing event held 2½ hours from Vancouver. "Look, I'd give up a lot of my life to be at Canada Hockey Place watching all the games," says Iverson. "But I'm still a part of something. This whole experience makes we want to go to the next Olympics to help out."
Some people are abnormally amped up for their mundane tasks. Instead of tending to her patients, Crystal Boser, a chiropractor from the Vancouver suburb of Maple Ridge, is volunteering to stand on a downtown city street for 10 hours and direct the media to their proper buses. "So many interesting people come by here and ask different questions," says Boser. "Figuring out the answers is a challenge." She's got the media bus routes down cold but loves it when strangers ask her about Vancouver's public transportation.
Boser says no one has yelled at her yet. She's one of the lucky ones. Granted, some volunteers are pretty clueless, giving you three different answers to the same question. And too often, they pester attendees for the wrong reasons. For example, ushers at the speedskating venue are fond of telling people to clear out of empty areas for fear of blocking traffic, ignoring the fact that the area is empty.
Still, the volunteers take much more abuse than they deserve. According to a manager of a group of volunteers, several IOC officials like to take late-night trips to Sochi House, where the Russians are partying hard and promoting the 2014 Olympics, which they will be hosting. Several suits have asked volunteer drivers to wait past midnight for a ride and then complained when the volunteers went home rather than stick around for the tipsy bigwigs. (In fairness, the manager did say that this same group of IOC officials gave away 50 event tickets to the volunteers.)
One of the toughest places for the volunteers to operate, it seems, is the curling venue. "I find that there's a lot of drunk people at curling," says Sue Andrykew, a mail carrier from Windsor, Ont., who took a month off to volunteer and is crashing on a friend's futon. A few days ago, a woman screamed at Andrykew, demanding that she move some people who were blocking her view of the sheet. As if that's not bad enough, too many smokers are lighting up in nonsmoking areas.
Is Andrykew at least getting a chance to enjoy Vancouver's vibrant nightlife? "Oh, at the end of the day I'm too tired for anything like that," she says. So if she could do it all over again, she surely wouldn't sign up, right? "Absolutely I would," Andrykew says. She points to Quatchi on the back of her badge. "I'm excited to go to work to get some more stickers."