My first Olympic experience – volunteering at Rio 2016

I realized that I had never properly told you about my experience at Rio Olympics and how my daily life as a language services volunteer had looked like. I wrote here about the road to become Olympic volunteer and about the costs and benefits, but never about the actual work and daily routine. So let’s change it! I was lucky to get into the area of language services and I was even luckier when the venue assigned to me was my preferred venue of artistic gymnastics! During a skype call months before the games we were told, that we could write an email and name our preferred venues. That would obviously not guarantee getting these venues, but they said they would try to allocate us according to our preferences. In my case that worked perfectly!

Artistic gymnastics at Rio Olympic Arena

Volunteer uniform

My volunteer duties

My main task was to interpret for athletes and help them communicate with journalists, medical services or other staff at the venue. That was an amazing job! During the competition we were relatively free, we could watch it (yes, we were allowed to enter the spectator hall) or we could be anywhere at the venue chatting with other volunteers. Like 20-30 minutes before the end of competition we had to go downstairs to the so called mixed zone and get ready for the action. Mixed zone is an area where athletes come straight after the competition to be interviewed by journalists. The moment when the athletes enter the zone everything gets crazy! Especially after medal rounds and especially when the athletes won medals. Everyone wants to ask them questions and the journalists are literally jumping on each other. As I have mentioned, Russia is very strong in artistic gymnastics, and not only Russia, Ukraine as well, for example. So Russian language was really needed and I was asked quite frequently to help the journalists. I have interpreted for men and women Russian teams (they both won silver in team event) and I interpreted for Ukraine. Most of the interviews were for written media, but I have done some interviews for the television as well. At the beginning I was very nervous, because I am not a professional interpreter and I was constantly scared of forgetting something. The questions were easy and the conversation itself was not difficult, but when an athlete says several sentences and mentions several facts you have to be very focused to remember them all. I tried my best, I hope I was not that bad =) Another thing that you have to be aware of is the vocabulary! In my case with artistic gymnastics one should know such things as vault, parallel bars, uneven bars, floor routine and so on. And you should also be familiar with famous athletes in the sport. Athletes mention other athletes during the interview or they get questions what do they think about the performance of this or that competitor… So unless you’ve heard the name before it might be hard to pick it up from the conversation. But don’t worry, I did not know the names several times and I just asked to repeat them.

Mixed zone – media gets ready to interview athletes

We were a big team of language services volunteers but I have to say that many of them stayed without real work and were quite disappointed. The thing is that the languages that were in demand were Russian, Chinese and Japanese – the languages of the winning teams. USA is very strong as well, but you know, English to English was not really needed. We had many amazing guys who could speak fluently French, German, Spanish etc. but their skills were not really required. International journalists are almost always interested in medalists only, so bear it in mind in case you would like to volunteer in language services. Try to be at the venue where your language team has good chances for winning medals.

Volunteers working during press conference
Getting ready to help with TV interviews

One of the other tasks that I found super cool was accompanying the winners to the medal ceremony. I was lucky to be with Russian men and women teams who won silver. The task is quite easy, you just have to explain the guys the rules of the ceremony (when do they step up, where is the photo position and so on), but it was sooo great to be with them behind the scenes and to see their bursting emotions of happiness! We had like 10 minutes before the ceremony and it was priceless to stand next to them, talk to them and to prepare them for one of the most amazing moment of their life. Truly awesome!

olympic medals
Olympic medals – ready to be given to the winning teams during the medal ceremony

Daily routine

Every one of us had a personal schedule with shifts. The schedule was quite flexible, we could talk to our supervisor and select the days we wanted to work on. As we were a big team and we had a lot of volunteers there was never a shortage of workforce. I think I worked every day except for 2 days break when our venue had no competitions. I liked my volunteer job so I was happy to be on duty every day. I remember that technically we had 8 hours shifts during the day, some were assigned for the morning shift while others for the evening one. But it did not make any sense for us, because the competitions at our venue were running from around 1-2pm to 6-7pm. So I was coming to work every day at around 1 and leaving at 6. As you see, my working hours were quite relaxed and easy.

My venue Rio Olympic Arena was located in Rio Olympic Park very far away from the city center, where I was provided accommodation by the organizing committee. It took me every day 2 hours to get there and 2 hours to get back. That was tough! First I had to take metro, then change metro, then get a special shuttle to the Rio Olympic Park – 1,5 hours. Next I had to pass the security control (depending on the time of the day the lines could be huge) and get to the check in place for my venue. At check in place they scan your accreditation and check you in for the day (this way they keep track of all your shifts). Furthermore they give you food voucher and sometimes presents to keep you motivated to come to your shifts  On the first day we got watch, on the other days we got pins, some toys and 2 times we got tickets for competitions (I got once for handball and once for basketball!). To reach the venue and to check in was taking me additional 30 minutes at least. So in order to be at 1pm at work I had to leave my hotel at 11am. The lucky guys provided accommodation in the hotel got also great breakfast there. I was going for breakfast with my roomie at around 9.30-10 (the breakfast was till 10 actually, but they always let us stay longer) and then getting slowly ready for the day ahead.

Check in for volunteers
Canteen for volunteers

After work fun

When my shift was over and I had free time I sometimes went to see competitions in the Olympic Park. I had accreditation for the whole park so technically I was able to enter any venue. Technically. As a volunteer you are only supposed to be at the venue where you are working, but in fact you could also be a bit more flexible in the application of this rule =) If you apply common sense and stay discrete, you could enter other venues and watch the games. The truth about the games in Rio was a huge amount of empty seats on the tribunes! I don’t know how it happened (all the tickets were officially sold out and it was not possible to buy anything), but at every game I went there were free seats available. A friend of mine from Munich was volunteering at the fencing venue. Russia is very good at fencing and it was a divine pleasure to watch my team win. My friend was sending me a message with the result of the day and saying “Come at 6, we are in the finals, it will be on fire” and I would go there to watch the match. Honestly, seeing my team winning and cheering for them was one of the highlights of all my experience in Rio. Another great match I saw was women handball Norway vs Russia. OMG, that was insane! We have won in the very last seconds, we were all screaming like crazy … those emotions are unforgettable!

During the night we went out couple of times to local clubs in Rio. The city center where I lived was a dodgy area but it had great night life. With my friends from Munich and with some other volunteers it was fun to party on the street getting the cheapest and tastiest caipirinhas ever and then entering dance clubs. But I wish we had more of that! When I volunteered for the first time at the Universiade in Belgrade we were going out every night, those two weeks were among the best of my life. I was going to Rio with the same expectations and unfortunately they were not met. Even though our hotel was full of volunteers and we all stayed at the same place we were somehow not really hanging out together. That is the only thing I regret about my volunteer experience – I wish we had had a stronger community!

Some final thoughts

Summing up my two weeks as a volunteer I can say that it was fantastic! I could not have imagined to be so close to the competitions, to athletes, to interpret for them and to cheer for my own country! I watched live the Olympic Games, I have even stood on the Olympic beam (haha)! It still feels surreal that I was standing there next to Olympic champions and contributing my tiny piece to Olympic success! I am one happy volunteer but I don’t want to create the illusion that everything was great at the games. I know volunteers whose shifts started every day at 6 am (remember the 2 hours commute) or were lasting till 2 am, I heard stories about very strict and angry supervisors who were not kind at all to their volunteers (my supervisor was great, allowed us to watch the competition and was really trying his best to make us enjoy our work), I know volunteers who dropped because their job was meaningless and they did not have anything to do for hours (even at my venue we had too many volunteers and it was just not enough work for all of us). The lines to the canteen were endless and officially we only got one voucher for one meal (either lunch or dinner!). I found one voucher very unfair, but the thing was that you could always come to the check in again and ask for another one. They never refused me a second voucher when I came in the end of the day and asked for dinner =) Furthermore not all job positions were as entertaining as mine, there were many (a lot of) tough tasks that have been carried out by volunteers! I think that volunteers were doing a tremendous job, their input was the biggest of all. To be sincere I would not have accepted some job positions and I have a lot of respect for the people who were doing them. But then again to be fair I am not a local 20 years old student who has a lot of free time and is willing to help out at the games anyway. (If I were then I would probably as well be willing to do anything). I am just trying to say that if you are coming to the games from another country and it is a considerable effort in terms of time and money for you to be a volunteer, then you should really try to find a position that you would enjoy. I know it is not easy giving the amount of applications, but select carefully your future role during the application process and once accepted communicate with the supervisor to get as close as possible to your desired position. The organizers as well want their volunteers to be satisfied and happy (otherwise they will not show up for their shifts haha), especially if we are talking about foreigners.

Volunteer job can be a lottery, so far I was quite lucky. I would encourage anyone interested to try, chances are you will have a great experience! Even if something goes not as expected it is still a fabulous opportunity to see live the games, to meet people, to watch behind the scenes and to enjoy the volunteer work.

Part of our language services team at ROA
After all the competitions were over and they were preparing to dismount the equipment our supervisor (the best ever!) has told us: hey, let’s go to the field of play and take some pictures! Everybody got crazy, it was so awesome!
And I got a chance to stand on the Olympic beam!

Till the next time 😉

4 thoughts on “My first Olympic experience – volunteering at Rio 2016

Add yours

  1. haha, great article. I came here to inspire myself. I am looking forward to Tokyo 2020. Haven’t yet got interview call but I am quite sure I will be invited and finally would be able to participate in the great Olympics and do my part as a volunnteer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Sorry for a late reply, somehow I missed your comment. Good luck with being selected for Tokyo 2020! I haven’t got an interview yet, but I hope they will contact me soon =)


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