International Volunteer Day, which is held every year on 5 December, is a chance to remember that the Olympic Games could not take place without the support of volunteers. Every two years (for the Summer and Winter Games), several tens of thousands of volunteers from all walks of life and with a wide range of skill sets provide assistance to spectators and delegations at Games time. It is often said that the volunteers are the ones who “make the Games”.
Driven by his passion for the Games, Londoner Paul Wignall has volunteered at two editions. In 2012, in his home town, he took part as an official driver; and in 2016, in Rio, he took on a completely different role. He talks to us about his experience.
Why did you want to become a volunteer?
I’ve always loved the Olympic Games. I’ve been inspired by them ever since I was a boy. I’m now 63, and I remember watching the Games in Rome in 1960 and then in Tokyo in 1964 (when I was 11) on the television, even with the time difference. I’m really into my sport: I’m a sprinter and I also coach long-distance runners, teaching them how to improve their speed in endurance events. When London won the Games in 2005, I saw on the Organising Committee website that they were launching a volunteers’ programme. I applied without expecting anything to come of it.
I was quite an old candidate – what could I bring to the table? I’m an experienced driver, I know my city really well. The Organising Committee was looking for people who were motivated, with the right attitude and a good work ethic. One of my assets was the fact that I was a coach. And I was chosen to be one of the 50,000 volunteers, out of probably more than a quarter-of-a-million applications.
How was the first experience?
First of all there was an incredible training period, general then more specific training. They tested my driving skills, my anticipation levels and my ability to adapt to the Organising Committee cars. Then, in July 2012, it was time to get started. I got my schedule and began escorting athletes, officials and other members of the Olympic family from one venue to another. I loved it. I was so proud to be involved in my hometown Games! I knew this would never happen again.
What did you get out of it?
The London Games were fantastic. Everything went smoothly. Even the weather was on its best behaviour. I made my small contribution; I was a part of this great success story for my city and my country. The atmosphere was extraordinary, working with those 50,000 volunteers who were so passionate, so keen to be involved. I was sad when it was all over, but at the same time, it just made me even more enthusiastic. I said to myself I could do it all again!
How did you get to repeat the experience in Rio?
I set up an alert on their official site, straight after the London Games. I had to be patient. And then in 2014, I sent off my application. There was an online Skype interview with a small group of people from all over the world. We were given 10 minutes to find a way to summarise what the Games represent. We worked as a group to compare ideas. It was really thought-provoking! In November 2015, I received an answer – I’d been accepted. I was so excited, really delighted! I was going to Rio, but in a completely different role…
What was your role?
In Rio, I worked on the scoreboard for women’s basketball matches. It was really interesting. It was all about the “statistical” side of things, rebounds, two- and three-point field goals, free throws, blocks, etc. An unbelievable experience. I remember the Canada-Turkey match, the electric atmosphere, the teams’ arrival, the warm-up, the music at full blast, and then I had to provide the information in real time, with that noise raging all around me. It was a real challenge, because you really can’t afford to make a mistake!
What was the atmosphere like while you were working there?
Rio is a remarkable city. They did a fantastic job. People were talking about the organisational difficulties beforehand, but the Games went off perfectly. The people were particularly friendly. As soon as they saw our uniforms, they wanted to help us. The Brazilians were really welcoming with the volunteers.
What was your assessment of this second experience?
At the basketball venue, I worked alongside employees from the Organising Committee and the Official Timekeeper, people from all over the world. It was such an invaluable experience, really impossible to beat. I was also lucky enough to have some free time so I could get to enjoy the marvellous city. At the end of the day, you’re just a tiny part of this enormous whole, but when you add up all those tiny parts you’re making a real difference.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an Olympic volunteer?
You always need to have the right attitude, you need to be really motivated, and of course you need to be passionate about the Games and have the Olympic Movement in your heart. There’s no place for cynicism. There are always criticisms, but you have to want to make a success of it because it’s something you believe in. You then become a small part of this event, and that’s hugely rewarding. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it!