So you want to be a volunteer at the Olympics and/or Paralympics? Good for you!
For Paris 2024, they will start accepting volunteer applications from February 2023 and plan to send acceptance/rejection notifications from September 2023. You can apply through the official website when they start accepting applications: https://www.paris2024.org/en/volunteers/
I wrote this FAQ to give you some idea of what it’s like to apply, be selected (or rejected), be trained, receive role assignments, and work as a volunteer. I know that people who never was an Olympics/Paralympic volunteer have lots of questions like I did when I first applied.
At Tokyo 2020, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a Games volunteer (nicknamed “Field Cast”) and went so far as taking venue-specific training at the Olympic Village before withdrawing in favor of a paid managerial position in Press Operations. I ended up working with 20 to 30 Games volunteers at the Olympics and Paralympics. Despite the pandemic, the majority of Games volunteers stayed on and had a great experience.
I also write this FAQ for future OCOGs (Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) so they can better understand the viewpoint of the volunteer and hopefully serve them better.
Note that some of the answers below are based on how it was at Tokyo 2020. Different Olympics may do things differently. Hopefully, this FAQ will still give you a general idea and some insights if you are a newbie.
by Philbert Ono, last updated on Feb. 11, 2022
Olympic and Paralympic Games Volunteer FAQ
What's so great about being an Olympics/Paralympics volunteer?
・You can take pride in being one of tens of thousands of people helping to put on the biggest event on the planet. Every Olympics/Paralympics is a historical event remembered by people around the world for decades to come. Be part of history.
・You can see the Olympics/Paralympics behind the scenes.
・You meet people from all over the world and make new friends.
・You experience the host city and country.
・You might see the Games up close or see athletes in action or behind the scenes.
・You can develop a camaraderie with fellow volunteers and staff during and after the Games.
・Even well before the start of the Games, you can enjoy the "journey" or road or ride to becoming a Games volunteer. As the months, weeks, and days pass, the excitement gradually builds and your imagination starts to run wild as what might transpire. There are many milestones along the way such as training, unveiling of the uniform design, test events, role assignments, and uniform pickup. And since the organizer will always mark the number of years or days left in the countdown (1,000/500/100 days to go, 2 Years to Go, 1 Year to Go, etc.), you will be constantly reminded. Enjoy the ride!
・Enjoy an other-worldly experience like no other. The Olympics is a totally different world and fantasy never to be repeated in the same time and place. Great break from your normal, daily routine. After it's over, it may be like waking up from a dream.
What are the minimum qualifications to be an Olympics/Paralympics volunteer?
・Minimum age requirement of 18. (No maximum age limit.)
・Fluent in English or the host country's native language.
・Willing to work for free.
・Willing to pay for your own accommodations and any long-distance travel expenses.
・Be available to volunteer for the minimum number of days. (At Tokyo 2020, we had to be available at least 10 days during the Olympics or Paralympics.)
When and how do I apply to be an Olympics/Paralympics volunteer?
For Paris 2024, they will start accepting volunteer applications from February 2023 and plan to send acceptance/rejection notifications from September 2023. You can apply through the official website when they start accepting applications: https://www.paris2024.org/en/volunteers/
Do I need to send in separate volunteer applications for the Olympics and Paralympics?
No, you can apply to be a volunteer for both the Olympics and Paralympics with just one application. However, there is no guarantee that you will receive a role for both even if you apply for both. If you get accepted, you might receive only an Olympic role or only a Paralympic role.
Any tips for applying to be a Games volunteer?
・Read all the instructions and information carefully. If the information in English is a translation of the host country's native language, keep in mind that things can get lost in translation. If there's any text or information that does not seem correct or clear, ask someone who can read the original text to check the meaning for you. Or ask the volunteer office. (At Tokyo 2020, the English was often poorly translated, often making information and notifications for volunteer applicants unclear, incorrect, or misleading.)
・On your application, do not submit any false information. They will eventually check and confirm your identity, address, birthdate, etc.
・Submit a decent ID photo of yourself. It will be used on your accreditation card. Follow their exact specifications for the ID photo. No hats/caps, no sunglasses, etc. Take the time to get it right the first time. Otherwise, they might delay accepting your application and ask you to submit another ID photo. In the case of Tokyo 2020, we were not allowed to smile for the ID photo.
・On the volunteer's online portal (website), keep your personal information up to date. If your photo ID or passport has expired or if your address, phone number, etc., has changed, be sure to update it.
What are my chances to get selected as an Olympics/Paralympics volunteer?
Your chances for getting selected depends on multiple factors, including the total number of applicants, your location, and your nationality.
There will certainly be many more applicants than volunteer positions. In the case of Tokyo 2020, there were 200,000+ applicants for 80,000 Olympic-Paralympic volunteer positions.
Paris 2024 plans to recruit only a maximum of 45,000 volunteers (31,500 Olympic volunteers and 13,500 Paralympic volunteers). So your mathematical chances of getting selected depends on how many people apply.
People who live in the host city or country will naturally have a much better chance of getting selected. (See detailed answers under the next few questions.)
Generally speaking, the odds are against you, and consider yourself to be lucky if you get selected.
I have experience as an Olympic/Paralympic volunteer. Will I be selected automatically?
Maybe and maybe not. It depends on how valuable and rare your experience and skills are. For Tokyo 2020, overseas volunteers who had experience and skills not common in Japan were selected. For example, equestrian and fencing volunteers.
Meanwhile, many other experienced volunteers overseas were not selected. At the same time, many inexperienced applicants in Japan got selected. If only experienced volunteers (there are many of them) get selected, then there would be little chance for newbies. There was a good mix of both.
How does the organizer select Olympics/Paralympics volunteers?
Tokyo 2020 never revealed their volunteer selection criteria in detail, but we did notice the trends below:
・Vast majority of selected volunteers were Japan residents or Tokyo residents.
・Out of 80,000 selected Games volunteers, only 9,000 to 10,000 were foreign nationals.
・Out of the 9,000+ foreigner volunteers, only 2,300 were based overseas. The rest were foreign residents of Japan. So only about 2.8% of the 80,000 were from outside Japan. The rest were Japan residents.
・Volunteers represented 120 countries.
・Those who preferred unpopular roles (such transport driver) on their application form may have had a better chance to get selected.
・Local residents already active as local sports volunteers (especially for the Tokyo Marathon operated by Tokyo Metropolitan Government) tended to get selected. In the application form, we could state our Tokyo Marathon volunteer experience and our volunteer ID No.
・There were a few experienced Olympic/sports volunteers who were not selected.
・There were many totally inexperienced people who got selected.
・Volunteers with special skills or experience not commonly found in Japan were selected.
・When overseas volunteers were barred from entering Japan due to the pandemic, an exception was made for 500 overseas volunteers who had special skills not common in Japan. They included equestrian and fencing volunteers.
・English fluency was not required since most Japanese cannot speak English and there were roles not requiring foreign languages.
・Bilingual (especially English and Japanese) volunteers generally received better or more meaningful (team leader, etc.) roles.
*Paris has announced that they will select people from all over France, all age groups, equal gender numbers, and even people with disabilities. Only 3% to 5% of volunteers will be foreigners.
How can I increase my chances to get selected as a Olympics/Paralympics volunteer?
Based on my answer for the preceding question, I can recommend the following:
・Be a resident of the host city or host country. The odds are greatly against overseas applicants.
・Have specialist experience or skills not commonly found in the host country.
・Be a local sports volunteer in the host city or country.
・Be able to speak English and the host country's language. Or be bilingual in less common languages.
・Be willing to volunteer for both the Olympics and Paralympics.
・Be willing to volunteer more than the minimum number of days during the Games.
・On the official volunteers' website, submit your application sooner rather than at the last minute.
If I get rejected, will they tell me the specific reason(s) for the rejection?
Probably not. In the case of Tokyo 2020, the rejection email (sent in Sept. 2019) gave only a generic reason for the rejection.
It basically said that there were many more applicants than volunteer positions, and so they could not match your preferences with any available position.
If you get rejected, don't take it too hard. There are still other ways to get involved.
What is the basic process and timeline to become an Olympics/Paralympics volunteer?
The process (or "journey") takes about 1.5 years before the start of the Games when the organizer starts to accept volunteer applications. Many people might think they can apply only a few weeks or months before the Games. That's not how it works. Unless you have personal connections allowing you slip in at the last minute, you will have to go through the long, official process:
- On the official volunteers' website, submit your application when they accept applications. For Paris 2024, they will start accepting volunteer applications from Feb. 2023.
- The organizer will review your application and select applicants for an interview (in-person or online). All applicants will eventually be informed if they have been selected or not. It will take several months before you know the result. Paris plans to send acceptance/rejection notifications from Sept. 2023.
- Selected applicants will undergo orientation or training (online or in-person).
- A few months before the Games (in the case of Tokyo 2020, it was in March), volunteers will receive their role and venue assignments. They will later receive their volunteer uniforms and shift schedules.
- Within a few weeks or days before the Games start, there will be venue-specific training and you will meet fellow volunteers, supervisors, and managers.
Keep checking the official Olympics/Paralympics volunteer website for updates. For Paris: https://www.paris2024.org/en/volunteers/
How should I prepare for the volunteer interview?
No preparation is necessary unless they tell you otherwise. For Tokyo 2020 in Tokyo, we first had an orientation meeting in a large room. We sat at tables in groups of six people. First there was a short presentation with slides. Then a group activity. We were given sheets of newspaper and had to make a free-standing paper tower as tall as possible without it falling over. Each group had to discuss and decide on the design and build it. It was an exercise in teamwork. A few groups came up with innovative ideas and created really tall towers.
After the orientation, we went to the interview room where they checked our photo ID. Then we were interviewed in pairs by two interviewers for only 10 minutes. Very generic questions about your willingness to be a volunteer and enthusiasm for the Games. Lastly, there was a fitting room where we could try on sample volunteer uniforms (not yet designed) for size. Turns out that the sizes were smaller than usual.
For the interview, casual wear was fine.
What kinds of jobs/roles do volunteers do?
Games volunteers do all kinds of jobs with 600 to 700 different roles at many diverse venues and locations.
For Tokyo 2020, there were nine role categories: Guidance (guide spectators, check tickets, security checks, guide at airports and hotels), Events (operational support for competition and training venues), Mobility support (car drivers to transport Games participants), Personal support (welcoming overseas visitors, language support), Operational support (distribution of uniforms, registering staff at check-in points, distributing equipment at Athlete Village and media centre), Healthcare (transport support for medical personnel and ill/injured spectators or athletes, doping test support), Technology (supporting the distribution/collection of tech equipment, entering data and displaying event results at venues), Media (support media people and their activities, photo/video shooting), and Ceremonies (support medals ceremonies).
Paris 2024 has announced six major volunteer categories almost the same as Tokyo 2020: Orientation and assistance, Sports operation support, Organizational operation support, Transport, Medical services support, and Ceremonies support.
Can I choose my volunteer role, sport, or venue?
On the volunteer application form, you should be able to indicate your preferred role categories. At Tokyo 2020, we could indicate up to three preferred role categories. We could also list our favorite sports and sports skills.
However, you still might not get the role/sport you want, especially if many people want the same role. The most popular roles are those which deal with athletes, medals ceremonies, etc. Many people also want to work at high-profile venues or sports like the Olympic Stadium (Opening/Closing Ceremonies and athletics), gymnastics, and swimming.
In the case of Tokyo 2020, the least popular role was car driver to transport athletes and officials. Since there was a shortage of driver applicants, the organizer told us that some of us might be given driver roles instead if we had a driver's license.
What do Team Leaders do?
At the venue, the typical chain of command from top to bottom is Manager (including deputy managers), Supervisor, and Team Leader. Some volunteers will be assigned as "Team Leader." Team leaders take care of a specific group of volunteers and they are usually the volunteer's immediate supervisor who coordinates the shift schedule and specific tasks. They report to the paid supervisors ("contractors") or managers (paid position). It's also possible that the supervisor (paid staff) will coordinate or adjust the volunteer's shift schedules.
What are the most desirable and undesirable volunteer roles?
Based on comments by Tokyo 2020 volunteers, volunteer roles which allow you to meet/see athletes or watch the competition were the most desirable. Being able to enter the FOP (Field of Play) to see the competition is highly coveted.
However, not all volunteers will be assigned to a competition venue or have access to the FOP. They might have to work behind the scenes (BOH or Back of House) where the competition cannot be seen or at a non-competition site.
Non-competition sites include the MPC (Main Press Centre), hotels, training venues, UAC (Uniform Accreditation Center where volunteers pickup their uniforms and accreditation card), etc. Perhaps such roles are less exciting, but you never know.
I don't like the volunteer role I received. Can I change it?
It may be possible depending on the OCOG's policy. At Tokyo 2020, there was an option to reject the role assignment. However, they gave no guarantee that another role would be offered. Therefore, the vast majority of volunteers accepted the role that was given.
If you applied to be both an Olympic and Paralympic volunteer, you might receive a role only for the Olympics or only for the Paralympics. At Tokyo 2020, only about 5,000 of the 70,000 Games volunteers received a role at both the Olympics and Paralympics.
My volunteer job is boring. What should I do?
In most cases, they will rotate your job so you won't do the same thing every day. But if you're still bored, talk to your supervisor or manager to see what else you can do.
How do I drop out and what happens if I drop out?
In the case of Tokyo 2020, if you wanted to drop out for any reason, you just login to the volunteer portal website and simply press the "Withdraw" button. It might ask why you are withdrawing and give a warning that it would be irreversible.
However, with so many people feeling anxiety over the pandemic, Tokyo 2020 later allowed volunteers who dropped out to cancel the withdrawal so they could still be a volunteer. After the "Withdraw" button was pressed, it would become a "Rejoin" button. Not sure if Paris or future Games will also allow this.
Is it possible to change my volunteer shift schedule?
Yes. Whatever shift schedule you are given, you can still make last-minute changes. Just tell your team leader, supervisor, or manager or whoever is coordinating your schedule. If you can't make it on any day or if you feel sick, let them know ahead of time so they can find another person to fill in.
How is the volunteer training? What do they teach?
At Tokyo 2020, there was both in-person training and online training. Everything was in Japanese. Very few training sessions were in English.
The in-person training in Tokyo was held in a large lecture hall where they gave a Powerpoint presentation on basic things. The online training was mostly a series of short educational videos (all in Japanese with English subtitles). You learn about diversity, inclusion, SDGs, how to guide disabled persons, and other topics.
Although Tokyo 2020 provided English translations of the training materials (paper and online), the English quality was subpar. Same goes for all the training documents and handbooks which were translations of the Japanese.
Although it might not be included in the official training, I also highly recommend taking a class on first-aid procedures such as AED and CPR. Also at your venue, note where the AEDs, fire extinguishers, and emergency exits are. They may or may not tell you this.
What is FA, FOP, BOH, SPT, VEM, TEC, PSA, IBC, MPC, OBS, IOC, IPC, NOC, IF, etc?
When you receive your role and venue and start working, you will notice that the Olympics/Paralympics have their own lingo, especially many three-letter abbreviations like the above.
"FA" is "Functional Area" which basically means "department." The host city's organising committee (OCOG or Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) have FAs with a specific purpose. The FAs all have abbreviations such as SPT (Sport), VEM (Venue Management), Technology (TEC), EVS (Event Services), LAN (Language Services), PRS (Press Operations), and many more.
All venues also have abbreviations such as OLV (Olympic Village), OLS (Olympic Stadium), TAC (Tokyo Aquatics Centre), TWC (Tatsumi Water Polo Centre), and YAF (Yumenoshima Park Archery Field).
There are many other abbreviations for other facilities and job titles such as MPC (Main Press Centre), IBC (International Broadcast Centre), VGM (Venue General Manager), VMC (Venue Media Centre), VMM (Venue Media Manager), and VPM (Venue Photo Manager), and DVMM (Deputy Venue Media Manager).
Many abbreviations remain the same at each Olympics/Paralympics.
After working at one Games, you will become familiar with many of the FAs and abbreviations.
Will volunteers be asked to work at test events too? Who will pay for the travel expenses?
Yes, some (not all) volunteers will get invited to help with Olympic or Paralympic test events held within a year before the Games. If you can afford the time and expense, helping with a test event is highly recommended. You will meet other volunteers and get to know the sport and venue.
Do Games volunteers get paid?
No, they don't get paid. The word "volunteer" inherently means you do it for free. If you want to get paid, look for paid jobs instead. The official website will list job ads (mostly for highly specialized jobs), and temp agencies and event companies will likely post jobs too.
Do Games volunteers get reimbursed for transportation and lodging?
Generally speaking, no. There was an exception at PyeongChang 2018's remote venues where volunteers were given free lodging. But normally, volunteers should expect to cover their own lodging and travel expenses.
At Tokyo 2020, volunteers only received a daily commuting allowance of ¥1,000 and free meals once a day.
If I don't get accepted as a volunteer, how else can I get involved in the Games?
If you are a resident of the host country, you will have other options to work or get involved. The organizer normally wants as many local people as possible to get involved. Here are a few possibilities:
- Tourist guide volunteers might be recruited by a local municipality to welcome and guide tourists at airports, train stations, etc. For Tokyo 2020, tourist guides were nicknamed "City Cast."
- For Tokyo 2020, volunteers for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies were recruited. They were required to attend meetings and rehearsals some weeks or months before the ceremony. Keep checking the organizer's official website for any additional need for volunteers.
- Check for job offers on the organizer's official website. If you have specialized skills, they might have a paid position for you. Job ads are usually posted during the few years before the Games start. However, all jobs are temporary, lasting for only a few months or a few years.
- Check with temp agencies for part-time paid jobs at the Olympics. Check for any temp agencies which are official sponsors. There is a wide variety of jobs paying higher than minimum wage. Some jobs might have you work at venues. Non-sponsor temp agencies might also recruit people. (There were a lot of them for Tokyo 2020.) They might recruit only a few months or weeks before the Games start.
- Volunteers for the torch relay will be needed for crowd control. At Tokyo 2020, torch relay volunteers were recruited by local municipalities where the torch relay would be held.
- If you have expertise in any sport, check with your national sports federation or your national team to see if they have any jobs you can apply for.
- Check with official sponsors for any Olympics-related job ads.
- Some volunteers/staff also get in through personal connections. If you are qualified for the role and know someone, it's possible to get in through unofficial means. It might seem like it's cheating the system, but I know people who got in through such connections where they were needed.
If you live overseas and get rejected, there are much fewer alternatives. Paid positions might be one of the few options available. The Olympics (OCOG) does hire qualified or experienced people from different countries. Managerial and technical jobs requiring prior experience or specialized skills may be offered to people outside the host country. Many paid staff at the Games are from overseas since they may be the only ones who are experienced in certain jobs at previous Games.
What's the difference between volunteer jobs and paid jobs?
Volunteers have the option to shorten their hours, take the day off at anytime, or drop out at anytime. They have much more flexibility with regard to shift schedules. However, they cannot pick and choose the role or job. They do whatever is assigned.
Paid positions require the worker to show up at the assigned time and place and do the required job. They can apply for a specific paid job and do it if they are hired. Some jobs can be done by either volunteers or paid staff. In such cases, the paid staff usually supplements the volunteers. Paid staff may also replace volunteers who drop out.
There is a wide variety of paid jobs at various levels, from full-time managers to part-timers. You might see job listings on the official website (mostly for managerial, technical, and specialized jobs), sports federation websites, and temp agencies (especially a few months before the Games).
How should I prepare to be a Games volunteer?
Take care of your health and don't do anything risky that can injure or sicken you. Get vaccinated for any pandemic.
Study the host city/country, the venues, the sports, public transportation, and major athletes or teams. Study the local language if you don't speak it.
Of course, do all the requested or assigned training (in-person or online).
Should I learn the host country's language? How important is language ability?
If at all possible, yes, you should at least learn basic words and phrases of the host country's language. A little language goes a long way. It also shows your respect for the local people.
Language ability will be important for certain jobs, but not all jobs. Any bilingual ability will likely increase your chances of getting selected or getting a better role. Bilingual people will obviously be assigned roles to meet more people than in a monolingual role.
I speak English, so I should be okay even if I don't speak the host country's language, right?
Yes, English, French, and the host country's native language are the official languages at the Olympics and Paralympics.
You should be able to get by in most cases with only English. However, if you don't speak the host country's language, it might make things less efficient or cause misunderstandings. There will likely be someone to translate for you, but everything cannot be translated all the time, so you will inevitably miss a few things and things may get lost in translation. At the Olympics/Paralympics, clear and concise communication is really important.
From the OCOG or volunteer office, all communications with volunteers will be in the host country's native language and/or in English. In the case of Tokyo 2020, communications were all in Japanese and translated into English (no French). We had many problems with the quality of the English (translated from the Japanese). Many times, we could not understand the exact meaning. Lots of spelling errors too. Hopefully, the English for you will be better.
Bilingual people who can speak both the local language and English will have a major advantage on a practical and working level.
I live overseas or outside the host city. How should I prepare and what should I look out for?
If you have been selected to be volunteer, you should start networking with confirmed volunteers in the host city/country. Always good to have friends in the host city who can give you practical advice especially regarding lodging and safe neighborhoods.
Before your volunteer activities start, there will be a lot of communications from the organizer regarding your application, required steps, training, etc. Since most volunteers will be local residents or citizens, most of the communications will apply to them. Many things won't apply to you and only some things will apply to overseas volunteers. This is another good reason to start networking with other volunteers.
So you need to distinguish whether something applies to you or not. If you are not sure, you should ask the volunteer office.
Is there an official social media group or official social media for volunteers?
For Tokyo 2020, we did not have any official Facebook/What'sApp/LINE group or social media dedicated to volunteers.
There were only unofficial social media groups for volunteers started by private individuals. Their helpfulness and quality varied widely depending on the admin and members. Group admins who were not volunteers themselves could not provide much useful information. And unmoderated groups attracted a lot of spammers and trolls (opposing the Games).
Since volunteers have many questions, an official social media group for volunteers would have been helpful. It would have reduced the workload on the staff trying to respond to email inquiries from volunteers.
Should I join an unofficial Facebook/WhatsApp/etc., group for Games volunteers?
Yes, if you can find a helpful group for volunteers. The ideal social media group for volunteers would have an admin and members who are also Games volunteers or applicants. There should also be members who live in the host city or country who can speak the local language. Such members can make the group very helpful. The group should also be well-moderated to shut out spammers, Olympic haters, trolls, etc.
I live outside the host city or country. How soon should I make reservations for flights and accommodations? Any advice regarding accommodations?
There are two points in time when most volunteers try to make reservations. The earliest point in time is about 10 months before the Games when you find out that you have been selected. By then, the organizer will send acceptance and rejection emails to applicants. If you are lucky enough to get selected, it's time to familiarize yourself with the host city and see what kinds of accommodations there are. Also find out how soon they accept reservations.
In the case of Tokyo, most affordable accommodations did not accept reservations until six or three months in advance. So this was a problem for those wanting to make reservations ASAP.
Another problem was when we tried to make reservations too far in advance. The rates for the Olympic period was not set yet. The owner had not yet decided whether to double or triple the room rates. So it's possible that the cost of the room you reserve now will increase later. Or the owner may cancel your low-cost reservations in order to take new reservations at a much higher rate. If you have reserved an affordable room, check periodically to make sure your reservation and room rate are still valid.
The next point in time to make reservations is about four months before the Games when you find out where you will be assigned as a volunteer. The organizer will send an email informing you of your role and venue (location). If the host city has venues scattered over a wide area, it would be ideal to find out where you'll be working before you reserve accommodations. But the dilemma is that all the affordable accommodations might be booked up by then.
If you find affordable accommodations and can make reservations, reserve it for the time being. You can always cancel it (check if there is any cancellation fee) if you later find better or more convenient lodging.
Also join a social media group and get in touch with other volunteers who can be roommates. Get in touch with residents of the host city and obtain advice on safe neighborhoods, public transportation, etc.
Do volunteers receive a free uniform? Do I get to keep it? What is included in the free uniform?
Yes, you will receive a free volunteer uniform and can keep it along with the accreditation card(s) and lanyard.
The exact items and quantity you receive may vary depending on the organizer. For Tokyo 2020, volunteers received three polo shirts, two pairs of pants (convertible into shorts), one pair of sneakers, one wide-brimmed hat, two washable cloth masks, two pairs of ankle socks, a small shoulder bag, a plastic water bottle, small handbook, and a large tote bag. All made by an official sponsor and branded with "Tokyo 2020." The same uniform could be used for both the Olympics and Paralympics.
When you pickup the uniform, if possible, you should try it on to make sure it fits. In Tokyo, we had a fitting room where we could try it on. Most sizes were smaller than advertised. For example, the XL polo shirt felt more like L size. The sneakers were also normal width, so if you have wide feet, you should get a slightly larger size.
If you had only three polo shirts and two pairs of pants, how often did you wash them?
I washed my uniform every three days. One pair of pants, I wore two days in a row before washing. Fortunately, our uniforms were made of quick-drying material with almost no wrinkles.
For the Paralympics, we received more sets of extra uniforms leftover due to the volunteers who dropped out. That really helped. Didn't have to do the laundry as often as before.
Besides the uniform, what other freebies do I get as a volunteer?
At Tokyo 2020, volunteers also received pins. A bronze, silver, and gold pin were given when you worked a certain number of days (3 days for a bronze pin, 5 days for silver, and 6 days or more for a gold pin). Volunteers also had a lottery where many volunteers won a Tokyo 2020 Swatch watch (worth about ¥8,000).
For COVID-19, we received free portable bottles of hand sanitizer (besides two washable masks). For the heat, we got a cooling towel and salt tablets.
We also got free meals at least once a day and a transportation allowance of ¥1,000 per day.
Are the free meals for volunteers delicious?
At Tokyo 2020, it was yes and no. I have heard some venues (like the MPC, Olympic Village, and rowing venue) served good food, while many other venues had lunches which were slightly too salty and not so delicious.
My venues served monotonous food every day: Spaghetti, small piece of broccoli, small piece of carrot, rice balls (nothing inside) or bread rolls every meal. The main dish was always too salty and it rotated only between hamburger steak (photo), too salty pork, salmon with tartar sauce, and chicken. No vegetarian nor halal food which was surprising since the Games supposed to be about diversity and inclusion.
After several days, some of us stopped eating the free meals and only consumed the free drinks, ice cream, or occasional dessert (cheescake) or fruit. Lots of food was left over or ended up in the trash.
Consequently, food waste became a problem at Tokyo 2020. The problem was exacerbated by volunteers who dropped out or were not needed (because of no spectators). Too much food was ordered. The organizer later announced that the excess food was recycled for animal feed, etc.
I was one of the tolerant people who ate the free meal every day for several weeks. My strategy was to starve myself past the normal lunch time until I got hungry enough to eat anything. So I ate around 2 pm.
It was disappointing that our free meals had no hint of Japan. The rice balls had no ume plum inside. Food is a great way to showcase the local culture, but we tasted nothing Japanese in our meals for staff and volunteers. (Of course, athletes had good food.)
For future organising committees, I highly recommend that good food is provided even to volunteers and staff, not just the athletes. Food is very important. The right food can boost our energy and morale. Please make sure the food tastes good. Volunteers and regular staff also deserve good food.
Do they have vegetarian and halal meals for volunteers?
At Tokyo 2020, vegetarian and halal meals were unfortunately not available to volunteers and staff. People requiring vegetarian or halal meals had to buy and bring their own food. (Of course, the Olympic Village for athletes had vegetarian and halal meals.)
If I receive the uniform and then drop out as a volunteer, can I still keep the uniform and accreditation card?
At Tokyo 2020, volunteers who dropped out before starting their volunteer activities were required to return their uniform and accreditation card.
Can I sell my volunteer uniform at online auctions, flea markets, etc?
At Tokyo 2020, for security reasons, volunteers and staff were prohibited to sell or lend their uniforms before and during the Games. TOCOG (Tokyo Organising Commitee for the Olympic Games) requested those resale/auction sites to delete any reselling of the volunteer/staff uniform.
Note that even if an unauthorized person wears the uniform, it will not get him/her inside any venue without the accreditation card with a photo of the person's face. Facial recognition is used at entry.
After the Games were over, loads of volunteer uniforms appeared on Japanese auction and flea market sites. The unused ones sold for quite high prices.
Will paid staff wear the same uniform as volunteers? If so, how can you tell the difference between volunteers and paid staff?
At Tokyo 2020, paid staff, managers, and volunteers wore the same uniform. We could tell the difference only by looking at the accreditation card indicating the person's affiliation. Managers and volunteers had "OCOG" (Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) on the card. Contracted staff had the name of their company which hired them.
Can I wear anything made by a non-sponsor?
We were not allowed to wear anything emblazoned with a highly noticeable corporate brand. At the Games, they didn't want us to wear or drink anything that is not an official sponsor of the Games.
So at Tokyo 2020, we only wore outer clothing made by ASICS and drank only drinks (including mineral water) from Coca-Cola. However, I didn't have to wear an Omega/Swatch wristwatch.
What great adventures and experiences can I expect from being an Olympic/Paralympic volunteer?
I think the best part is meeting many different people and working in a totally different world or dimension. Fellow volunteers and staff come from all age groups, many different places, and many walks of life. The frustrating thing is that you're there for such a short time, so there's not enough time to get to know everyone. But there will always be some gems who will become friends to keep.
There are also rare stories such as when Jamaican Olympic hurdler Hansle Parchment caught the wrong bus for the Olympic Stadium and got to the Tokyo Aquatics Centre instead. He met a volunteer (actually paid staff) there who paid his taxi fare to the correct venue where he won the gold medal. The staff person later got a free trip to Jamaica courtesy of the country's tourism ministry.
One thing about the Games is, expect the unexpected.
Can I take a selfie with an athlete?
At Tokyo 2020, all volunteers and staff were required to keep at least 2 meters away from athletes as a Covid safety precaution. Also, volunteers were not allowed to take pictures while on duty.
However, if a rare opportunity comes up and the athlete is willing, you can likely take a photo with the athlete. But don't expect to be able to. It's more likely that you can take a photo with the official mascot.
Will volunteers receive a Certificate for being a volunteer?
Most likely. At Tokyo 2020, volunteers were first told that they would not receive any certificate for being a volunteer. However, after the Games, volunteers and paid staff were given a link to enter our name and Accreditation No. to receive a Participation Certificate in the form of a PDF document for download. (See photo below.)
What are the tough or difficult things about being an Olympics/Paralympics volunteer?
Long hours or very early morning or very late night hours, difficult weather conditions, or a time-consuming commute.
It's also possible that you don't get along well with someone. Since there will be people from different cultures, you may see people doing things not conventional or acceptable in your culture.
If you have any problems, you should talk to your supervisor or team leader to resolve it.
Whatever it is, it won't go on for long. The Games will end soon enough and it will be over.
How did you cope with all the negativity before Tokyo 2020?
There's always negative news before every Olympics to attract reader attention. However, it was much worse in the case of Tokyo 2020. The news media claiming that Tokyo 2020 would become a COVID-19 super spreader unfortunately only became a super spreader of doom and gloom. It made the public think that the Games were dangerous to the public and that most of the public were against the Games. No one believed the Japanese government who kept saying that the Games would be "safe and secure." Many of the volunteers who dropped out no doubt did so because of Covid fears fueled by all the negative media. Some volunteers were afraid or ashamed to wear their uniforms on public transportation.
Negative emotions ran high, overwhelming logical thinking. There were people and volunteers who seriously doubted that the Games could be held. All the while, I thought there was very little chance of cancellation. In my mind, the worse-case scenario was no spectators, but not cancellation. Not after investing all that time, planning, effort, construction, and money. When you see all those venues already built, there was no way all that could be totally wasted. Only a major earthquake or disaster in Tokyo could cancel the Games.
I also never believed that the majority of the Japanese public were against the Games. Even with COVID-19, there was still ample evidence of widespread public support in Japan such as the following:
・In July 2020, pro-Olympics Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko easily won reelection by a landslide against her rivals all opposing the Games. This was the biggest sign of public support which the media seemed to have ignored on purpose.
・After the postponement was announced, only a small percentage of ticket holders in Japan sought refunds. Most still hoped to watch the Games in person.
・Torch relay saw large crowds most everywhere. So much that it had to be taken off public roads in many places. And very few of the 10,000+ torch bearers withdrew (mostly celebrities who probably did not want to attract crowds).
・Among the 80,000 Games volunteers, only 10,000 dropped out. The news media made a big deal out of the 10,000 who dropped out, but ignored the fact that the majority (70,000 or 87.5%) still remained.
・In April 2021, everyone in Japan was astounded and happy to see star swimmer Ikee Rikako qualify for Tokyo after battling leukemia since 2019.
・Even the most negative public opinion polls showed only a minority (30–35 percent) who thought the Games should be canceled. Another 30 percent thought the Games should be postponed again (impossible). Public opinion polls kept providing the impossible "Postpone again" choice to respondents to inflate negative responses. In my mind, this automatically invalidated the poll.
I wasn't surprised at all to see the Japanese public becoming crazy about the Olympics when Team Japan started winning a lot of medals. Finally, the truth reared its pretty head. Majority public support was always there. All the Tokyo 2020 official shops were buzzing with customers, another sure sign of popular support. Japan has long had a deep affection and reverence for the Olympics, ever since 1964. It's not something that can be erased by a pandemic.
The negative minority is always noisier, so they seemed to overwhelm the silent majority in favor of the Games. After the Games, all those high-profile negative media and naysayers have not said a word about the Games. No apologies, no congratulations, no compliments. Only silence after months of clamoring, "cancel the Olympics," "super spreader," "suicide mission," or "Olympic virus variant."
Amazing that no one gets penalized for spreading so much negativity. They don't seem to realize the damage they have done to so many people. (Another case in point is former Princess Mako who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] due to all the negative and misleading media coverage. No one is getting punished for this.)
The negative media spooked the volunteers who dropped out fearing for their lives and deprived themselves of a rare chance to be exposed to a whole new experience and to meet many new people. It broke up friends who had opposing thoughts about the Games. It affected the morale of athletes and staff working hard to make the Games a success. And it also forced the organizers to ban all spectators even though spectators were allowed at other pro sports in Japan at the same time. The banning of all spectators (including athletes' friends and family) at the Olympics must never happen again.
Those of us who endured all the negativity and still worked at the Games must be considered as very positive-thinking people. We have naturally developed a special camaraderie and bond among ourselves like at no other Olympics. I congratulate everyone who went through it all and came away with unforgettable memories.
How did you cope with COVID-19 at the Games?
It depends on whether you were a Japan resident or someone from overseas. For Japan residents, the COVID-19 safety measures were just a minor inconvenience. We all had to wear masks in the summer heat, talk behind plexiglass or plastic curtains, and sanitize our hands and surfaces. We all got saliva-tested for Covid-19 every seven or four days for free. Athletes and volunteers who worked near athletes were tested every day.
People from overseas were required to take COVID-19 tests twice before departure and again upon arrival in Japan. They were also required to undergo a two-week quarantine before being allowed to go of their hotel rooms or go outside their competition venues. So they had to go through a lot more than Japan residents.
As a Tokyo resident, I have absolutely zero complaints about the COVID-19 safety measures that were implemented at Tokyo 2020. Almost everyone followed the rules, so I personally didn't feel or think it was a risky place to be. No such thing as zero risk, but the risk was very low at Tokyo 2020.
We all had to keep at least 2 meters away from athletes as much as possible. Since spectators were banned, it further reduced the risk of getting infected at the Games. The percentage of people at the Games who got infected turned out to be extremely low. Most who got infected were Japan residents.
Volunteers were allowed to commute using public transportation which you might imagine to be risky. But on buses, trains, and subways, everyone wore a mask and the windows were open and the air conditioner was on high. So I thought public transportation was also low risk.
I don't think it was necessary to ban all spectators. I believe even 20 or 30 percent capacity of venues would have been safe enough, especially outdoor venues. Pro baseball and soccer games and sumo (in September) in Japan all allowed spectators during the summer and no one complained.
If you will be working at Beijing or any event amid a pandemic, there's no need to panic as long as the organizer and participants will take the necessary steps to minimize the risk of infections. I'm sure Beijing and Paris will keep people safe and hold a successful Games.
How did you cope with the hot weather?
Outdoor venues were especially vulnerable to the heat. At my outdoor venue where most volunteers worked outside, we had them work in the shade wherever possible. We had them take a break every 30 minutes to rest in an air-conditioned space. We also allowed volunteers to take a break at anytime if they felt uncomfortable by the heat.
Volunteers also received free cooling towels and salt tablets.
Any other pet peeves about the Games?
I don't understand why official Tokyo 2020 merchandise was not sold internationally. They declined to ship official merchandise overseas. Major countries in the world have no problem shipping overseas, but Japan does. Don't they need the money? It's very puzzling.
Since October 2021, the olympics.com website has deleted many news articles and information pages related to Tokyo 2020. The tokyo2020.org website has also disappeared. TOCOG created a new website at tokyo2020.jp, but it's only in Japanese as of this writing. This domain name and website also disappeared at the end of June 2022 when TOCOG officially disbanded.
In June 2022, the Tokyo 2020 official Olympic films hit theaters (Toho Cinemas) nationwide in Japan. There were two official Tokyo 2020 Olympic films titled, "Tokyo 2020 Olympics Side:A" and "Tokyo 2020 Olympics Side:B."
I had high expectations for the Tokyo 2020 official films. However, I was quite disappointed for the following reasons:
・The films cover only some of the sports, not all. Only the following sports were given significant time in the movie: athletics, competitive swimming, badminton, women's basketball, women's softball, 3×3 basketball, gymnastics (mainly artistic), judo (longest feature), karate, skateboarding, surfing, and triathlon.
・All the other sports are not in the films or appear for only for 1 sec. or less. No archery (only 0.5 sec.), men's basketball, artistic swimming, water polo, baseball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, fencing (only 2 sec.), equestrian (only a few seconds showing horses being transported), field hockey, football, golf, trampoline, handball, modern pentathlon, rowing, rugby sevens, sailing, shooting, table tennis (few seconds), taekwondo, tennis, volleyball, beach volleyball, weightlifting (2 sec. only), and wrestling.
・Even though Side:B was hyped as featuring Games volunteers, volunteers are not featured at all in both films. There was only one brief scene of Field Cast volunteers dismantling some booths on the street. But no interviews nor any close-ups showing volunteers in action. No City Cast either. This is an outrage, especially when there are so many video clips which I thought were totally unnecessary (more about this later).
・The films are disjointed with almost random video clips with no clear storyline or progression.
・There's no narrator and almost no explanatory captions except for the person's name and title or date, so it can be hard to follow or understand what the purpose of the individual story is. Dialog is mostly in Japanese except for interviews with English-speaking athletes.
・Side:A is basically a collection of short video clips centering on some athletes. Short interviews and human-interest stories of athletes, but most stories don't really have a strong build-up or climax or conclusion. Some of the athletes are interesting, like the breast-feeding woman basketball player who was allowed to bring her husband along to help take care of their baby, US sprinter and Harvard grad Gabrielle Thomas, judoka Shohei Ono, and South Sudan athletes training in Gunma Prefecture. But there's no narration, and sometimes it's hard to understand the point of the individual story.
・Side:B was really disappointing and boring. Filled with talking heads and negativity: COVID-19 patients in ICU, postponement problems, Olympic protestors (appearing a few times with their loud megaphone chants "No Olympics!"), Japan's error in the 400m men's relay race, star swimmer Seto Daiya's failure to pass the preliminaries, Mori's sexist remarks about women and his venomous exchange with the press, etc. So much disorganized negativity in this film. We already saw all this on the news, and now we pay money to see it again.
・Side:B also has too much talking. Same old people talking or being interviewed again and again: Bach, Mori, Muto, Hashimoto, etc. Mori's resignation, Bach's Hiroshima visit, etc. More like a collection of news videos.
We see and learn nothing new. They should've have used the precious time in Side:B to feature more sports and athletes instead. Interview more ordinary people like kids and teachers who saw the Games, volunteers, staff, etc. Show us things we haven't seen before. At least make it an uplifting film, not a depressing one.
・Both films have no climactic scene or conclusion at the end. They just end.
I'm sure the movie producers and director spent a lot of time making these films with 5,000 hours of footage at their disposal. However, I'm afraid both films won't appeal much to the Japanese public. (Very few Japanese went to see the films.) There's no real educational value nor entertainment value. Not artistic, not aesthetic, very little beautiful imagery. Only a few scenes were emotionally moving.
We are mostly reminded of the negative aspects of the Games. This is okay if the film also shows how we overcame all the hurdles and negativity. But it hardy shows this. I wanted to see the determination and resilience of TOCOG, the dedicated volunteers/staff who remained on, the lessons learned, etc., etc. They are not expressed much in the films.
In Oct. 2022, the official films will be sold on DVD and Blu-ray for a pricey ¥9,000 to ¥10,000.
Any other advice or thoughts for volunteers?
・Nobody knows everything about everything. During the first few days, you might see some things missing or make mistakes. Don't panic. They will be corrected soon enough.
・The Olympics have many rules, but it's hard to remember or know them all. You are bound to make a few mistakes. It's also hard to know who supposed to do what. Or who to call if something goes wrong. If you don't know something, ask someone who might know.
・Don't get angry with anyone who makes a mistake. Don't blame anybody for anything.
・When in doubt, follow common sense and always have the "safety first" mindset.
・If you are interviewed by the media, don't say anything negative. Negative comments can come back and haunt you later or make you look bad or silly later. (Look at all the people who said Tokyo 2020 would be a super spreader or a "suicide mission.") Don't vent any complaints to the press either. Any complaints about the Games or your volunteer role should instead be directed to the organizer or the volunteer office.
・If you like to collect pins, it seems you have to ask for them. In my case, I only got pins when it was given to me. I was fine with that and never begged for them.
・If the medals podium is in front of you, do not stand on the podium unless it's work-related.
・At the Games, a million things go on at the same time at all the different venues and different sports. It's mind-boggling to behold. But nobody can see everything. This was the most frustrating thing for me, not being able to see or experience what it's like at other venues and sports. So as a volunteer or staff, you will only see and experience just a tiny bit of the Games. But even that can be something awesome. Everyone's experience is unique.
・If you live in the host city, visit as many venues as you can in advance and attend test events open to the public. Also watch international sporting events at the Olympic venues. It will help you understand the venues, neighborhoods, and sports.
・If you get accepted as a volunteer, celebrate and enjoy the journey to the Games as well as the Games itself. It's really nice to have something big to look forward to. Maximize the experience and opportunity by doing your homework, meeting other volunteers, and seeing as many sporting events as you can.
・If you get rejected, don't get depressed. Just move on with your life or try to find another way to get involved in the Games.
・In any case, show your support for the Games, volunteers, athletes, staff, etc., whichever way you can. It can be an encouraging post or comment or Like/Love on social media, buying official merchandise, or just watching the competition on TV or online.
・If you like to buy official merchandise, note that after the Games, there will likely be a discount sale. In the case of Tokyo 2020, official merchandise continued to be sold by physical stores for almost two months after the Games (late Oct. 2021). The online official shop also continued to sell goods for almost 3 months (until Nov. 30) after the Games ended. The discounts first started at 30% off, then 50% off, and 70% or 80% off toward the end for some (not all) goods.
Thanks for reading and good luck with your quest to become an Olympics or Paralympics volunteer.
For a detailed timeline that Tokyo 2020 volunteers went through, see: Tokyo 2020 Chronology