Volunteers around the world – valuable experience plus fun?
Most of us must admit that at one point either in earlier or later stages of our lives sport had played an integral part. Perhaps we lived next to (and over time, even became) a “crazy sports fan”; or else we played sports ourselves, whether as a serious pursuit or as a pastime (see previous article). With developed countries slowly recovering from a COVID-19 pandemic outbreak that caused many events to be cancelled or postponed, the summer of 2021 witnessed a resumption of high-profile events, and was dominated by the Tokyo Olympics and the European Football Championship (UEFA EURO 2020(1)) in particular. Although experts have questioned their economic impact this time round, the social capital created by such mega-events still seems clear. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or religion, people from across the globe come together, putting aside their differences to enjoy the celebration of life. The most committed ones, the volunteers are even willing to offer their time, skills, and energy to assist with an event in exchange for various benefits.
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Mega-events – the world of thousands of passionate volunteers
During the recently finished EURO 2020(1) tournament across the 11 venues around 12,000 volunteers worked on the EURO-project, aged from 18 to 86, representing 113 nations (uefa.com, 2021). They filled several roles within and outside of the stadiums, assisting with accreditation, ceremonies, transport, media, ticketing, match operations and spectator services, to name but a few activities. With the tournament to be held for the first time in 11 different countries to celebrate its 60th birthday, UEFA EURO 2020 was intended to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all the fans Europe-wide, in which volunteers – very much the backbone of the event – would play a vital role (uefa.com, 2020).
Nor should we forget the other flagship sport event which was postponed to 2021 Summer the Tokyo Olympics where they were counting on 80.000 volunteers as an instrumental part of the Summer Olympics. However, this number largely dropped in the final days of the preparation due to the pandemic as a worrying sign of the “dangerous gamble” of the Games. Also, with neither many foreign spectators nor many volunteers allowed into Japan for the Games, we witnessed one of the most controversial games in the past years, whose complex legacy left open several questions for the future (The Washington Post, 2021).
But why do we have event volunteers?
In purely financial terms, the contribution made by a free workforce of volunteers to major sporting events has become increasingly important to the event organisers (Cuskelly et al., 2006). From a social aspect (in terms of the chance to acquire social capital as well as experience), for some, often younger volunteers, the opportunity to be involved in a major event has been too good to miss, either to be part of the festival or to experience working in sport. First-time and “one-off” volunteers have made new friends with other like-minded people, while for other, perhaps older and certainly more “serial” volunteers each new event represents a step in a longer volunteering journey that involves staying connected to the sports world, motivated by an overwhelming conviction that they are part of something bigger, something greater (Holmes et al., 2018).
Volunteering – A once in a lifetime experience and opportunity
As Kemp (2002) has observed, working closely with different types of participants (e.g. athletes, journalists, officials, spectators and other members of the organiser team) means that volunteers’ knowledge, skills and problem-solving abilities are constantly tested amid a unique working context and set of experiences. The large number of visitors brings about a unique social setting where volunteers from many nations can get to know other cultures and even themselves better. Moreover, the wide range of volunteer roles offers a special opportunity for on-the-job learning in different areas (e.g. ICT, Logistics, Hospitality, Marketing, Sustainability), all which can be relevant to future job applications and serve to make them more employable in a number of industry sectors.
‘when volunteering is not only about fun anymore…
Kim et al. (2019) have listed a few key areas where a person can improve themselves, and experience personal enrichment by volunteering at an event:
– Diversifying experience: It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and experience at the same time, being part of an important historical event that comes with a great experience, broadened world view, intercultural knowledge and often a sense of patriotic pride.
– Personal growth: Individuals gain some kind of self-respect and esteem via the volunteer journey, as well as new perspectives and motives in life opening in front of them that can inspire them to grow together with the event, setting new goals and challenges for the future.
– Social connectedness: As they are part of something greater it forms a sense of belonging, feeling responsible for the success of the team and the event, meanwhile making new connections, practising their communication skills, and growing socially.
Having to work together successfully within an international environment under a unique environment and facing huge expectations as well as strict deadlines in many ways resembles a workplace related task. The main difference in this case is that people voluntarily come to the events to be part of the programme. While having fun during this intensive period the volunteers can – indeed must – learn new techniques and skills to be able to fulfil their duties that they can continue to benefit from long afterwards.
– Cuskelly, G., Hoye, R., & Auld, C. (2006). Working with volunteers in sport. London, UK: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203966822
– Holmes, K., Nichols, G., & Ralston, R. (2018). It’s a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience and Opportunity—Deal with it! Volunteer Perceptions of the Management of the Volunteer Experience at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Event Management, 22(3), 389-403. https://doi.org/10.3727/152599518×15252895715050
– Kemp, S. (2002). The hidden workforce: Volunteers’ learning in the olympics. Journal of European Industrial Training, 26(2), 109–116. https://doi.org/10.1108/03090590210421987
– Kim, H., Choe, Y., Kim, D., & Kim, J.J. (2019). For Sustainable Benefits and Legacies of Mega-Events: A Case Study of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics from the Perspective of the Volunteer Co-Creators. Sustainability, 11(9), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11092473
– Uefa.com. (2020). Volunteers at UEFA EURO 2020. Available at: https://www.uefa.com/uefaeuro-2020/about/volunteers/ Accessed: 14.09.2021.
– Uefa.com. (2021). EURO 2020 volunteers relishing their vital roles. Available at: https://www.uefa.com/returntoplay/news/026b-12b687f728b9-9d5680617c5a-1000–volunteers-relishing-their-roles/ Accessed: 14.09.2021.
– The Washington Post. (2021). Olympic magic cut through the pandemic gloom, but the Tokyo Games’ legacy is complex. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2021/08/08/olympics-tokyo-legacy-pandemic/?fbclid=IwAR0Wubzf6IQPkJrpDJ0Wxif3XZAELaMl5DMA2HBeRWeGVJRvPk67j4IH_Vw Accessed: 14.09.2021.
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