Cruelly overlooked… Somehow the selectors left me out of the British Olympic team for the Games in Athens. They must have missed my plucky sprint finish to 137th place in the local fun run. Disappointed as I was by my omission, I had at least had the foresight to enlist as a volunteer instead. The application process was stretched out over several months but eventually I was delighted to be allocated to an obscure role in the Main Press Centre for the duration of the Games.
A couple of days before the Opening Ceremony I found myself queuing at 7.30 in the morning outside a large building close to Nea Ionia metro station in Athens. The crowd grew rapidly behind me and I congratulated myself smugly for my wisdom in arriving well before the 8am opening time. We were all volunteers waiting to receive our accreditation badges and uniforms before being unleashed on an expectant city.
At 8 the doors duly opened. I waved my driving licence and invitation letter at the security guard and expected to sail through but didn’t. He needed my passport. I had taken my driving licence rather than passport because I thought the consequences of accidentally losing it would be less serious, fool that I am. As a Swiss resident and therefore a veteran of much form-filling, I should have known better. The security guard took great pleasure in shaking his head and sending me on my way. My lodgings were miles away in Voula in the south of Athens. It took me three hours and 30 Euros worth of taxis to go back, pick up my passport and return to Nea Ionia. By this time the queue stretched far into the distance, shimmering in the midday sun. I had another three hours sweltering in the queue to reflect on my misjudgement but at least this time I made it past the security guard.
Inside the building the scene resembled Argos a few days before Christmas. I picked up a ticket reading “4978”. Across the room a screen displayed the message “now serving: 263”. I exaggerate but you get the idea. Once the wait was over the service was excellent. Smiling and enthusiastic Greeks guided me through the process, providing my accreditation badge and volunteer uniform. I was ready to go.
Olympic Games accreditation, which is designed to control access to venues and transport for the likes of athletes, officials and VIPs, creates a hierarchical society of bewildering complexity. The significance of the accreditation badge goes far beyond mere utility and reflects the status of the wearer, much like the ownership of cows or fast cars in other societies. When you meet somebody at the Olympic Games the first thing you notice is their level of accreditation. Athletes are obviously the most glamorous but among the rest there is a clear pecking order. The larger the number of obscure acronyms you have on your badge the better. Certain colours and numbers are preferable to others but this takes a trained eye. Most desirable of all is the infinity symbol resembling a figure of 8 on its side. This gives you access to all venues and places you securely among the aristocracy. As a relatively humble volunteer in the Main Press Centre I lacked access to sports venues but I knew my badge would at least keep me a level above the horror of the unaccredited caste, otherwise known as tourists.
I was immediately struck by the vast scale of the summer Olympic Games, which is almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. There were 300 medal events in 28 sports across 35 venues in Athens. About 200,000 people were accredited, of whom about 11,000 were athletes, 20,000 were media representatives and 50,000 were volunteers. Most of the remainder were officials or workforce of one kind or another – everything from long-jump measurers to ice-cream sellers. To support the competitive activity there was a vast operation behind the scenes, away from the eyes of spectators. For each competition venue there was a training venue; the athletes and many of the media stayed in purpose-built villages; there was dedicated bus transport to and from every venue for athletes, media, and technical officials; and the Main Press Centre operated 24 hours a day on seven floors, each the size of an out of town supermarket.
I worked reasonable office hours in my volunteer post, which left me time to see a number of events, including a gold medal for Britain in track cycling, when Bradley Wiggins overcame the challenge of Australian Brad McGee in the 4km pursuit. Afterwards statisticians were scrabbling for the record books to check whether it was in fact the first time that two Brads had contested an Olympic final. Another memorable event was the women’s marathon. I was in the Panathinaiko Stadium along with thousands of other Britons to cheer on Our Paula. The heat was incredible and between us we must have bought enough bottled water to fill a swimming pool. We could scarcely imagine what the runners were going through out on the roads. The crowd was dismayed when Paula dropped out but there were rousing cheers for all of the finishers in the fine stadium that was built to host the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896.
In the months and years leading up to the Games there had been endless stories about construction delays, budget overruns and internal wrangling. In the end the venues were wonderful, the organisation immaculate and Athens sparkled as rarely before. The city had been transformed since my previous visit in 2001. The metro was fast and reliable, the streets were spotless and the ancient monuments shone proudly at night.
As the Games progressed the popular parts of the city such as Syntagma Square and Monastiraki became busier and busier, until eventually the streets were packed all day and all night with sports fans from all around the world. Britons made up one of the biggest and certainly the most vociferous contingents. The atmosphere everywhere was friendly and relaxed. Some visitors may have grumbled about excessive hotel prices and occasionally unhelpful taxi drivers but everybody was glad they had come.
In contrast to a team championship, where your team’s almost inevitable elimination is brutal and final, the Olympic Games offer many chances of redemption. Not much luck in the judo? Never mind, there’s always the modern pentathlon. And even if your country is not involved there is the sheer fascination of watching the best athletes compete on the biggest stage. The action is especially compelling for sports you know well or for sports that are easy to understand. If you watch a sport that you yourself play you will probably find watching Olympic-level competition a humbling, inadequacy-inducing experience.
One event in the easy-to-understand category is the pole-vault. Without having any special knowledge it is abundantly clear that the athletes who combine the speed, strength, timing, technique and bravery to climb to almost 6 metres (men) or 5 metres (women) are operating close to the limits of human performance.
Whatever your opinion of the Olympic Games – and there are plenty of cynics – there is definitely something magical in the air. You have only to see from the reactions of the athletes how much it means to them. For the most part they spend years toiling away in near anonymity for one chance of a fleeting moment in the limelight. The likes of men’s basketball or football have their big tournaments elsewhere but for swimmers, gymnasts or rowers the Olympic Games are the pinnacle, the focus of a lifetime’s ambition. Whether their hopes are dashed or their dreams come true, it is an amazing spectacle to behold.
Attending the Olympic Games in any capacity is a unique, overwhelming experience but it requires a surprising degree of discipline and compromise. There are simply not enough hours in the day to fit in a shift of work, watching competitions, partying with friends, eating, shopping, sightseeing and sleeping. Something, somewhere has to give.
I now know from personal experience that the Olympic Games last 16 days because that is as long as anybody can continue to function without eating properly, sleeping or standing still. One official I met, toughened by numerous Olympic campaigns, compared sleeping to visiting the dentist: it’s a good idea once in a while but it’s not something you would want to do very often.
I left Athens with many precious memories and a mixture of emotions but, above all, with the feeling that it had been a privilege to be a part of the 2004 Olympic Games.
The summer Games in Beijing are now just two years away, and recruitment for volunteers for those Games opens in August 2006. If you enjoy sports and like the idea of an active holiday why not apply to be a volunteer?