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Did Volunteering Change The Face Of The Olympics?

September 06, 2012

This past Olympic season, we were all wowed by numbers. Whether it was the fastest mile ever run by man or the percentage of countries that sent women to participate in the Olympics (100%!) for the first time, numbers played a historical significance for the two weeks that most of us were glued to our television sets becoming total experts on trampolining and long-distance swimming.

This Olympics, the numbers didn't end with the just the statistics of the athletes themselves or even with the enormous sums that advertisers paid during the games. Some of us were also wowed by the numbers of volunteers that worked for over a year to make the London Olympics something that no one will forget for quite a while.

London 2012 Olympics - Volunteer Global

This year in London, over 70,000 volunteers or “Games Makers” were involved in everything from carting supplies to readying multiple stages, event arenas, and crowd areas. While 70,000 is said to be a standard number for the number of volunteers at past Olympics, many people had the same question as the Games came to a close, “Will this change the face of volunteering forever?”

If you've spent time abroad, you've been bound to notice that Brits love to travel (although perhaps not as much as the Dutch) and especially enjoy volunteering abroad. Volunteer Global itself receives a great number of British site hits each month as potential volunteers comb the web for the best volunteer abroad experiences at the best prices and best locations.

For the Olympic Games themselves, which only allowed British volunteers, over 240,000 people applied for the 75,000 positions. While it may already be clear that Brits love to volunteer, it has been estimated that 40% of those who applied were new to volunteering. For the volunteer industry, this number is huge.

Volunteering, either domestically or abroad, has been joked about for years as being addicting—few volunteers only do so once. It may be hard to tell whether the true draw to volunteering is the free t-shirt or the enormous sense of self-empowerment, but the idea of an event bringing so many people to service is extremely exciting.

Many commentators have wondered if the true legacy of the 2012 London Olympics will be the volunteers. While this may be true, I think that another legacy of the event may be simply a new way to organize volunteering on such a mass scale. Unlike many volunteer opportunities, the volunteers who participated in the Games were not doing so to address a crisis, but rather coming together to make something beautiful both for their country and for their world. Anyone who saw the Queen jump out of the helicopter would have to say that they succeeded.

What if the Olympics came to celebrate two things—both the relationships that can happen between athletes and countries as they compete among each other, and the efforts of nameless volunteers as they work tirelessly to bring the gaze of the entire world onto one perfectly executed focal point, if just for two weeks? What if volunteers became more than just an army of helpers, but a vast infrastructure that could be relied on both in good times and in bad? What if each country had such a group of willing citizens that could be used, like a endless stream of domestic Peace Corps volunteers to make their communities a better place? What if we already do, and it just took something like the Olympics to realize the true capabilities of a nation with a call to action?

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.