An Olympic Volunteer

Monday 9 October 2012

I huddled into my flimsy waterproof jacket and wondered what I was doing waiting on a station platform in the pitch dark on a wet summer morning in England. I shut my eyes against the rain that lashed my face and thought of the warm bed I had tumbled out of an hour earlier and the unfinished mug of tea still steaming on the work-surface. I could go back.

I opened my eyes and peered down the tracks. Two pin pricks of light heralded the arrival of the 05:04 to Brighton. As the train rolled slowly by me I could see into the brightly lit carriages. Each one seemed to be full of an army of people wearing purple and red uniforms. Excited chatter surrounded me when I opened the door and stepped inside. Complete strangers greeted me and began discussing the day ahead. The air was thick with anticipation and excited chatter buzzed around me. At last, after months of planning and training the Olympics were about to begin.

My journey had started two years earlier when I volunteered to be a Gamesmaker. Applications opened (and closed) on 15 July 2012 and I spent the next twelve months dreaming of a bird’s eye view of the action from the media centre. Regular emails appeared in my inbox exhorting me to join events in London promoting the Gamesmakers. Even before the final selections were made we were being honed into one big happy family – but I did turn down the invitation to run a mini marathon as running for buses is more my style.

I was convinced I was not going to be selected but then I was invited to attend an interview in November 2011 – as a prospective driver. I was encouraged to ‘sell myself’ but it was unclear what I was selling myself as. I was asked when I had last voluntarily helped a stranger, how it had made me feel and had the person concerned thanked me. My job as a tour leader meant that I was helping strange people all the time so I had several examples to offer. My interviewer scribbled enthusiastically all over a sheet of paper but I doubted anyone would ever be able to decipher these random notes. We established that I could converse in Italian and I went away certain that I would be driving Italian athletes around London.

It was hard to be patient as my application remained “under review” for the next four months. My employer needed to know if I was available to work that summer so I sent an email to Lord Coe (well his assistant) and although I did not receive a reply a few days later I received an offer to be a Volunteer Dispatcher on the Transport Team. I would be based in the ballroom at the Grosvenor Marriott Hotel and working in the Park Lane underground car park doing a variety of jobs. It sounded different and exciting.

My first training day was held at Excel where I joined over one hundred prospective drivers and two other dispatchers. We went through the same training as the drivers and learnt to use the radio and the sat nav but we were not allowed to drive the cars. But as passengers we explored the Olympic venues in the Stratford area and played with the radio. All the trainers were as enthusiastic as the volunteers – and very patient as we struggled to remember call signs and radio courtesies.

Distribution of uniforms for the seventy thousand volunteers was a massive undertaking that was based in a huge industrial unit in East London. We all had an allocated time slot and moved around the vast space in groups first proving we should be there in order to be awarded our accreditation and then moving on to be fitted for shoes, shirts, jackets and trousers. When I lifted my camera to record the endless rows of shelves stacked with boxes of clothing I was pulled to one side by the Border Force who wanted to know who I was and why I was taking photographs. I stuttered that I was a volunteer recording my experiences. I was allowed to stay but they kept a watchful eye on me.

We shuffled round the vast space and finally I was sized up by the lady guarding the rails of trousers - large ladies’. I was forced into a pair of trousers that seriously restricted my breathing. Some vigorous pulling up could not compensate for the fact that they were not deep enough to sit on my waist. I asked if I could try another size and was told there were no other suitable sizes. I waited until my adversary was in a cubicle dealing with another victim and appealed to another assistant. She produced a pair of men’s trousers that fitted perfectly.

I joined another queue to collect the items on my list and these were all put into a bag that already contained a cap, two pairs of socks, an umbrella, a notebook and a shoulder bag. Just as I thought I had finished I was directed to the longest queue of the day. My bag was unpacked and all the items were scanned against my accreditation card and then re-packed. I supposed that as the deal was we could only keep our uniform on completion of ten shifts they would know where to come should I fail to comply.

My second training day was specifically for the Volunteer Dispatchers and began with a tour of the underground car park on Park Lane. By this time the Olympic cars had arrived and occupied all the parking spaces. After learning how to inspect the vehicles and visiting the hub of operations, the radio room, we returned to the hotel for a final session. Danny leapt around manically telling us we were vital to the cause. We should be prepared to multi-task doing anything from checking vehicles in and out of the car park to running errands for important dignitaries. He lied outrageously when asked how many hours we would actually be based underground, estimating it to be around two hours each shift. In the excitement of the moment we all lost touch with reality - apart from three pragmatists who demanded a role change. We should have known that no one would willingly volunteer to spend ten hours in a car park.

The paid workforce (who wore the same uniform as the volunteers leading to permanent confusion) checked us in at the beginning of each shift and dealt with requests for shift changes of which there were many. Initially there were two shifts, 06:00 to 16:00 and 14:00 to midnight and an overnight shift for T3 drivers. It was not long before the organising committee realised that if all the drivers finished a shift at same time all the cars were off the road at the same time and it was impossible to check them all in and out again simultaneously. The shifts were staggered to ensure there were always cars available for the on demand service we were operating. We had some interesting situations to deal with – four deflated tyres on the same vehicle, a car stranded in a flash flood completely blocking one entrance and the destruction of a metal partition in the parking area.
Nevertheless there were still long periods of inactivity so I amused myself by practicing with the sat nav and exploring the local vicinity on the pretext of going back to the ballroom for a coffee break. We were not near a main Olympic venue and although some events were hosted on and around the Serpentine in Hyde Park the security was so tight it was impossible to sneak a peek. I was thrilled when I was successful in the lottery for a ticket to a rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony.

The rehearsal was brilliant particularly as I had no idea what to expect. I had a wonderful view as I was seated above the royal box surrounded by members of the armed forces so I felt very safe. I had been very pleased when I heard that the armed forces had been called in to deal with security as there had been very little evidence of any security during the run up to the Games and especially in our car park.

Those of us who attended the rehearsals were sworn to secrecy but it was difficult to keep quiet as I was buzzing with the excitement I had felt as rural England gave way to the Industrial Revolution and then the era of technology. Each phase was accompanied by uplifting music. I will always remember the throbbing of hundreds of drums as the chimney stacks broke through the green fields.

That was my first visit to the Olympic Park and as I was swept along by the surging crowds I was grateful that I was not based there marshaling massive crowds or perched on the top of a step ladder shouting at people to keep moving. I had amended my own role as a dispatcher and was passing on my expertise on my sat nav expertise to drivers who had failed to master it. The software had been written by BMW and was very sensitive. Impatient stabbing at buttons crashed the whole system and often before the car was out of the car park. Some days the ‘live’ option was not available and the drivers had to rely on a road map which was not ideal for those who had never driven in London. It took one driver four hours to drive from Heathrow to the Olympic Village with four irate Ukrainians on board. The stress and hours of waiting was too much for some and one driver abandoned his vehicle in the street. He gave his car keys and radio to the driver parked in front of him and walked away from his experience of a lifetime.

The number of volunteer dispatchers increased daily as drivers sought alternative roles which allowed me to diversify again and I became their trainer. Half way through the Games I was offered some work in the Call Centre at Canary Wharf. Ensconced on the eleventh floor of some high-rise offices I could see the yachts of the rich and famous berthed in the docks below. I enjoyed the hot lunches which were a welcome change from the filled rolls we had collected every morning from the Marriott Hotel but I missed the camaraderie of the communal breakfasts as we munched on bacon butties and gulped down gallons of coffee from paper cups. From our lofty perch in the call centre we could see the Globe in the Olympic Park and I realised that members of the Transport team were missing out on all the live action. There were big screens everywhere except the car park. It was time for another email to Lord Coe’s assistant. I did not get an answer but three days later I had a call asking me if I would like a ticket for the athletics the next morning. I jumped at the offer and was given one of three hundred tickets donated to members of the Transport Team. The atmosphere was incredible. Every athlete of every nationality was cheered by the crowds but when a British athlete was performing the spectators went crazy and the stadium became a sea of undulating Union Jacks. I was content. I had watched some events in the stadium and I had walked around the beautiful Olympic Park soaking up the atmosphere.

When an SOS was sent round for more drivers I answered the call and a few days later I reported for duty as a driver. As I was keen to get going I was the first one to collect my car and was rewarded with a ticket for my first job – the luggage car for a departing minister of sport. I arrived at the hotel in good time to discover that our passenger was out shopping. When he finally appeared he still had to pack and check out. When he, his luggage and a companion finally re-appeared he said he wanted to go shopping on the way to the airport. I took charge of the luggage and set off for the airport. I cruised down the dedicated Olympic lanes ignoring instructions from my sat nav’s to turn back as I had my own, quicker route having driven around London for many years. Luggage safely delivered I requested my next job and was directed to Earls Court where the volleyball final was about to finish. My first stop was a large car park where I lined up with other drivers. Gradually we were fed into another car park going through a rigorous security check on the way but at least I was now in the line of cars outside the venue itself. I reported to the dispatchers and was given four passengers from the Marshall Islands. We set off for their hotel on Park Lane following the instructions of my sat nav when directed me round a long one-way system that appeared to be sending us back the way we had come. My passengers were quick to draw my attention to this and insisted I reset the sat nav. I just turned it off and took a short cut I had had discovered a few days earlier. These two highlights punctuated hours of hanging around but I had anticipated this and caught up on some reading until the end of my shift.

The weeks flew by and I met lots of interesting people including several Italians who had come to London specifically to work on the Games. We met up regularly in the ballroom and gave each other lessons in our respective languages. Shortly after the Games finished we all gathered together for a farewell party in the ballroom before going our separate ways. I was leaving I stopped to say goodbye to Rachel, one of the managers. She hugged me warmly and told me I had made a difference. Among the one thousand volunteers based at Park Lane could this really be true? I did hope so - a small difference among the thousands of small contributions that had made our London Olympic Games so memorable. It was a proud moment.

Author: Valery Collins, © 2013