Volunteers are often hailed for being the “lifeblood” of the Olympic Games, working tirelessly to ensure their success. But since their introduction at the Olympic Games London 1948, they have contributed to much more than the delivery of the Games.
From gaining lifetime skills and unique experiences to promoting the Olympic spirit and creating new volunteer cultures, Olympic volunteers have created legacies which often continue to benefit them and their countries to this day.
Interest in the Olympic volunteer programme has not faded over time. More than 200,000 applications were received for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, a number which reflects the unprecedented enthusiasm for the Games across Japan.
On this International Volunteer Day, we celebrate their immense contributions to the uniqueness of the Olympic Games, and the lasting benefits that they have created over past Games editions.
Los Angeles 1984 – engaging communities
For the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984, the “Olympic Neighbour Programme” was created to help engage communities located around Olympic competition venues in activities related to the Games. Nearly 30 Olympic neighbour organisations – each with an average of 350 members – were created to coordinate a variety of initiatives, such as weekend sports festivals and workshops with Olympians. The programme attracted more than 5,000 volunteers.
Neighbourhood viewing sites were also created to allow residents across the city to follow the Olympic Games live. Seven viewing sites were created, with the most successful one set up in a community centre for unemployed workers. It gained media attention during the Games thanks to the huge enthusiasm displayed by its members while watching Olympic competitions.
Following the success of the concept, neighbourhood viewings continue to be used at major sports events across the world.
Barcelona 1992 – skills for a lifetime
Volunteers recruited to help deliver the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992 contributed to building a “volunteering” culture in and around the city. The organisation of the Olympic Games mobilised people in different spheres of Catalan society. Special incentives were created to encourage recruits, including grants to study French in France and English in the United Kingdom. Out of the 103,000 applications, 34,000 volunteers were recruited by the Organising Committee. All received training which gave them skills for a lifetime.
After the Games, the Association of Olympic Volunteers was created. This Association still provides support for most of the sporting events that take place in the city.
Athens 2004 – creating a new volunteering culture
Recruitment of volunteers for the Olympic Games Athens 2004 led to the creation of a new culture of volunteering in the country. Some 160,000 people applied, reflecting a particularly positive attitude from the Greek population towards hosting the Olympic Games. This was in stark contrast to what Greece had been used to prior to the Games: regular pools of volunteers in the country would typically include around 30,000 people.
The National Agency for Volunteering, which was created for the Games, aimed to take advantage of this surge in “volunteering for a national cause” and encourage volunteering on a more regular basis for the years to come. Since 2004, a variety of organisations have taken the lead in volunteering, building on the spirit of the Olympic Games Athens 2004.
One of those, Ethelon, was initially set up to focus on art, sport and entrepreneurship events taking place in Greece. However, it gradually evolved to also focus on social activities. Since it was founded in 2012, Ethelon has registered more than 9,500 volunteers, mainly between the ages of 18 and 25. It currently cooperates with more than 200 NGOs on a wide range of activities.
Beijing 2008 – spreading the Olympic spirit
Beijing 2008 staff and volunteers played a key role in promoting the Olympic spirit and sports development in Beijing and across China.
In 2010, in order to support them in this role beyond Games time, the Beijing Olympic City Development Association (BODA) created a dedicated community, offering a variety of activities to its over 10,000 members – all former Beijing 2008 volunteers. These include running, singing and dancing events, as well as fellowships and volunteer programmes.
London 2012 – the “feel-good” factor that lasts
The spirit of the Olympic Games London 1948 – the first Games edition to include an official Olympic volunteer programme – was on display again 64 years later during the Olympic Games London 2012. The 100,000 London 2012 volunteers were credited for the smooth running of the Games, and the “feel-good” factor they created through their commitment and enthusiasm sparked a huge rise in the UK’s volunteering culture after the Games.
To promote community volunteering further, the UK Government helped set up an Olympic legacy project called “Join In”. Its aim is to bring the benefits of volunteering to communities across the UK by matching potential volunteers with grassroots sports clubs and community groups. Another volunteering programme, Sport Makers, was created by the government's community sport agency Sport England. Its aim is to engage new volunteers aged 16 years and over in the organisation of community sporting activities across the country. The project engaged 82,990 registered volunteers.
Sochi 2014 – formalising the volunteer movement
In Russia, the volunteer movement was formalised to help run the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. A total of 17 volunteer centres were created across the country, and these continue to recruit and commission volunteers for major events, such as the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
One of these centres, located in the city of Sochi, has over 7,000 active members, including students and young workers. Thanks to its senior volunteer project, the centre’s members also include senior residents. In addition to sporting events, Sochi volunteers also participate in social and environmental campaigns.