Army of volunteers powers the Olympics
There are 75,000 fanny-packed volunteers — mostly Chinese college students — who will wait on the world's top athletes and luckiest fans.
Special to The Seattle Times
BEIJING — Today and every day of the Olympics, John Marshall Wu will begin work before sunrise — interpreting for Ukranian martial artists and Georgian judo masters.
Wu, 22, is a Beijing university student and a 2008 Olympics volunteer. He is one of 75,000 fanny-packed volunteers who will wait on the top athletes and luckiest fans.
"Fun? I'm not sure the Games will be fun," Wu said. "At times I'll be bored. At times I'll be tired. At all times, though, I'll be happy.
"Of course I dreamed of becoming an Olympic volunteer. I have a little brother back home who wishes he was me. I want to make him proud."
Volunteers power most Olympic Games. They help keep host cities' operating costs down.
Beijing's corps, however, belongs in another category. Nearly 1 million people applied for slots at the 2008 Games. Two million more asked to serve as "city volunteers."
"As a Chinese person, it's an honor to participate," Wu said. "There are 1.3 billion people in China and only half a million volunteers."
University students comprise the bulk of this summer's Olympic and city volunteers. Functional English speakers, they'll play a central role in hosting the Games.
"We signed up because China needs us," a student of civil engineering at Beijing's City Academy intoned. She staffs a street-corner kiosk — one of 550 around the capital.
"It's our job to give out-of-towners directions, to help sick and disabled people. We're taking this seriously."
Beijing has asked the volunteers to bridge China's widening generation gap, and to negotiate the cultural chasm separating East and West.
"Think of us volunteers as a big circle," suggested Wu, tracing three loops onto a napkin. "Think of the government as a circle. Think of the foreign guests as a circle. The government and the foreign guests overlap only slightly, in the middle of our circle."
One question is how much authority volunteers have, said Dean Baim, professor of economics at Pepperdine and an Olympics expert.
"What appears to be the 'Chinese' way is not to empower the front-line employees," Baim said. "This could be a problem."
Most university students, like Wu, jumped at the chance to become volunteers. Susan Li certainly did.
She even accompanied a West Indian track and field delegation at Beijing's Junior Olympics last year.
"I applied online in 2006," she said. "I was so excited. I felt the same as everyone else — proud of my country and ready to volunteer."
Only this spring did Li begin to question her decision, which as it turned out, was never hers.
Li had interviewed for a paid internship with China Oil, before hearing anything from Beijing's Olympic Committee about the volunteer job.
"I chose to stick with China Oil," she said. "There was an event for volunteers to sign a pledge. I didn't go. That's when my school got involved."
Two months later, Li is an Olympic volunteer. During the Games, she'll accompany volleyball VIPs.
Li isn't the only student who considers volunteering a sacrifice. Heather Bian will work inside the Olympic Village.
"I gave up my spot at an academic competition in Seoul to volunteer," Bian said. "I sort of regret it. On the other hand, after what China has gone through this year, I couldn't abandon my country."
The May 12 earthquake that killed 70,000 in Sichuan province shook many Chinese into solidarity this spring. Increasingly, these are China's Games. A powerful sense of ownership exists here.
Said Bian, "I'm doing this for my country, not for the world."
Wu, who has dreamed of becoming China's foreign minister to Russia, doesn't mind working long hours without pay. After all, he enjoys a free Big Mac — McDonald's is an Olympic sponsor — every day.
Wu's one quibble: his Adidas volunteer uniform. It's a European size large, much too big.
"People in the West don't know China," Wu said. "I visited Switzerland, and someone asked me if all Chinese still ride horses and wear robes. So, you see, I can't wait for the Olympics."
Daniel Beekman, of Seattle, is a Fulbright researcher currently in Beijing. Find his blog at www.seattletimes.com/Olympics.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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