I moved to London with the 2012 Olympics as a target, an aim to live in the big smoke for the 4 years leading up to experience a once in a lifetime games in ‘my’ city. I was excited to simply maximise spectator tickets and the want to volunteer was a bonus with no guarantee. I was determined this was an opportunity not to be missed. Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics experienced the volunteer boom, both more than doubling the number of volunteers from previous years. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games [LOCOG] were striving to exceed this further. I don’t think they ever imagined the response they got!
I can’t remember my timeline exactly, but I’ve cast my eye over past emails, yes, my Yahoo account is that old, I applied in May 2010. This is now the norm, approximately 2 years ahead of the games dates. My application was simple form filling; all online. As with any written application, it is essential to impress with words! I had confidence my volunteering background would be an advantage; weekly meetings corralling scouts into activities, even clearing hedges and building fences myself as a young Venture Scout. That shows ‘can do attitude’ – check. I stress my love of planning and organising – check. I focus on hospitality service experiences rather than sales – check. This is a better fit. There had been news and web articles stating that applications were being electronically scanned in phase 1 so keywords literally were the key. You can imagine my application was buzz word heavy i.e. VIP, positive, venue, problem solver, initiative, discreet, flexible, experience. A tip for all applications – imagine what ‘they’ are looking for and interpret ‘you’ to fit that. They didn’t need to know I’m not the biggest fan of sports, but I love large-scale live events, and this was one I had to attend!
One section allows me to cherry pick positions that I had interest in and confidence I could manage i.e. venue services, food hospitality, co-ordinator and dignitary assistant whatever that meant. I stick to any role that was service orientated rather than opening ceremony entertainer or driver for example. Once I pressed send, it was gone, it was done.
I had completely forgotten about it – almost. Surprised to have not received a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email. I was a little miffed. The news relayed an unprecedented number of applications had been received: over 240,000. Eventually, in March 2011, I receive an apology email for the delay and they’re still trawling through the thousands of applications. In hindsight, of course, this takes ages. LOCOG had to prioritise which volunteers are needed first. Sourcing volunteer interviewers to interview volunteers would be much higher up the list – duh. So, all I could do was forget again and not get my hopes up.
In September 2011, my heart was in my mouth when I reread the email subject and it sinks in that I’ve been invited to an interview. A selection event at ExCel London for a position to look after a VIP, I knew that key word would be beneficial. A Dignitary Assistant. Whoop! Double whoop! Again, what’s that then?
October 2011. I was interviewed by a lady who had at least 25 years on me, she felt calm, dignified and considered. Helpful as I needed to knock my verbal diarrhoea down a notch. She was a retired business owner, thoroughly chuffed and surprised by her own volunteer position. If successful, I was to be part of the Protocol team, I could be looking after a visiting Sports Minister from one of the countries participating in the Olympics. The questioning was very similar to a first interview in the service industry, “tell me about a time…”, “what will my skills and attributes bring to impress upon the sports minister who’s potentially coming to London for the first time?’ and similar. The funniest question I had expected and prepared “what was my favourite sport and why?”. I recollect the answer was corny relating to me liking the less obvious ‘sports’ such as shooting or ??; that solo challenges are more me. I’m not a typical team sport spectator or fan. I’m sure I started blithering on about how well they manage the nerves, bringing all the skill and practice together for the competition, when it matters.
There was a fever in the Royal Docks building when I arrived, even a chatter on the DLR (London Docklands’ Light Railway) to the venue. An excitement, anticipation and community building as soon as I stood in the front door. The branding was everywhere although I hated the games logo. I wish I’d been more of a mobile snap and go girl back then to have recorded it. An interesting exhibition about the history of the Olympics and the development plans for Stratford Olympic Park kept us entertained and a handy crowd control method for so many arrivals. A VT about Games Makers and already thank yous from the likes of Eddie Izzard, Steve Redgrave and Seb Coe. All I’d done was arrive but that does matter I suppose.
Our Games Maker Mission
- Be Inspirational
- Be Distinctive
- Be Open
- Be Alert
- Be Consistent
- Be part of the TEAM
Reflecting on the role, I start to worry I am really an atrocious foreign language speaker but that’s not going to stop me. International sign language and mobile phones can help me, I think. I still didn’t know exactly what the responsibilities would be, and I hadn’t got the placement yet!!
Did you watch Twenty Twelve, the BBC TV comedy series written and directed by John Morton, starring Hugh Bonneville and the brilliant Jessica Hynes as the PR guru. This is a spoof, but I bet not far off the mark from the marketing industry’s personalities and modern-day jargon. How else do these guys dream up the new ‘what’s new’. Whomever came up with the idea of Games Makers was inspired. To brand the community, to build the spirit and an anticipation, our own count down worked better than ever! A marketing masterpiece. The Brits really are experts at this. Only 15 months after the games, I end up at a conference with Greg Nugent, London 2012 Director of Brand, Marketing and Culture speaking. An inspirational man how he engaged with the identity, was employed as an interim director to then be integral to the brand as we know it.
Time flies, Christmas passes and we finally reach February 2012, the confirmation! I was successful and yes, I was to be a Dignitary Assistant. Still none the wiser but this was fantastic news. I couldn’t believe it! I was fit to burst. The previous 1 1/2 years had been quite a slow process and now the whirlwind began, the next 9 months sped by with much activity. The Games Makers were in the news frequently, the nation was not only behind the Olympic sports stars but also supportive and thankful for the generosity of volunteers giving their time.
May 2012, I am invited to a training afternoon. Back to east London. Around 20 of us, all exuding this pride and happiness to be part of this. The day consisted of the Games Maker mission, customer service, process and procedure, so many acronyms and the dreaded health and safety. Even at the end of our session with manuals and glossary of terms in hand, we’re raring to go.
In the same month I have my uniform collection – things just got real. Visiting an east London warehouse the size of 2 football pitches to try on and receive free clothes, heaven! Army precision queuing system to pick up an ID, keep the queue moving! People everywhere. The trouser section was funny, changing rooms galore and ladies chattering on about their sizing and how they looked. The volunteer help in this section were fantastic. I heard the ‘shop assistant’ honesty “better to go up a size and be roomy in hopeful hot weather”, “tops come up big and trousers small”. “all the trousers are extra-long, and we need to hem them”. Too many ladies squeezing into their wishful size, many persuaded the next one up would be better. Oh, dear we’re a nation of fat Games Makers – what a contradiction!
The second-best area was the pretend Adidas shop for trainers. All the same design so no need but you had to appreciate the effort to display all like a sports shoe shop. The very best part of all is heading to the till – yes, a cashier zapping the items taken, making sure I’d got the right quantities of all, the list seemed endless at the time and I still remember my stash:
- 1 gorgeous tomato red and purple anorak
- 2 beige trousers – not my favourite colour but hey ho I think I can get over it
- 2 tops – more purple and red!
- 2 pairs of Adidas socks
- 1 pair of Adidas trainers
- 1 shoulder bag
- 1 swatch watch
- 1 umbrella
- 1 water bottle
- 1 cap
- 1 Games Maker pocket guide ‘how to wear uniform’ booklet and CD
- All packed neatly in one large Adidas bag to get home. Who’s one of the sponsors then?
Back to the cashier…I’ve got all the right items, I’ve got my correct photo ID and that’s all I need. No money, no “enter your pin here”. Euphoria. As soon as I got home, I tried everything on again and had a tomato red/deep purple catwalk show of 1. Hilarious. My trousers were around 6 inches too long, the only item needing adjustment by a lovely seamstress I found in Waterloo, more used to wedding dresses than beige cargo pants. I’ve kept most of my uniform even though I’ve no reason to wear again. I’m not the only one, I’ve seen the trainers on the tube – other people’s feet – 3 or 4 years after the games!
As soon as I’d signed up 2 years ago, I’d been received updates and information by email but the closer to the date, the more emails we were receiving. One special email was an invite to a lucky dip draw to be in the audience of the opening ceremony technical rehearsal. I felt lucky already but gotta be in it, to win it. AND I DID. I nearly did a jig at my desk when I read my ticket followed by a flash of emotion, this was just an inkling to the connection I’d now formed with the games. Strange hey? This is just a long school sports day in’it?
Danny Boyle’s spectacular was just something else and the memories (and DVD box set) will last. If you didn’t watch it then were you in Alaska or space station; it was on TV everywhere. I’d got such a great seat, relatively high so I could take in the whole stadium. At times there was so many small scenes taking place in the show that it was a sensory overload. We had a small welcome from Danny Boyle himself as well as a request to keep all we’ve seen secret. No posting of videos or photos. During the rehearsal there were deliberate exclusions – no Queen & Bond section for us or Rowan Atkinson’s musical number. The ladies next to me had some bubbles that they kindly shared with me as we chatted away waiting for it to start. Once it did, we hardly talked, we were in awe during and in tears by the end.
LOCOG were organised! In addition to the uniform, Games Maker welcome manual and training, during July I headed to Canary Wharf to pick up a 2012 mobile phone, I acquired our volunteer Oyster card at some point but cannot for the life of me remember when and headed to Stratford Olympic Park for a guided tour of the venues. Sadly, didn’t go inside them though… yet. LOCOG had thought of everything except one frustration. They had not predicted the painful delay in countries confirming their team itineraries. I was part of Team Asia, I knew I was looking after Minister of Sport from Kyrgyzstan but no details. Barely days before the games and the individual countries were still not confirming travel plans, who knows why. Since found out his official title is Director of the State Agency of Physical Culture and Sports of the Kyrgyzstan Republic [KGZ]. A Mr. Baigazy Kenzhebaev.
KGZ competed with 14 athletes, the nation’s fifth appearance at the Olympics in the post-Soviet era. The National Olympic Committee of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan sent the nation’s smallest delegation to the Games; 11 men and 3 women, competing in the 9 sports, including the nation’s Olympic debut in sailing. I did find a pic of him and the team. Also the youngest delegation with more than half under the age of 25, most expected to reach their peak in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It was no wonder our chap was subdued, for the third consecutive year, the athletes failed to win a single medal. Good news in Rio when they won bronze! Followed by controversy as the weightlifter was stripped of the one and only medal haul. He had tested positive in one of the frequent drug test. Tut tut.
I was intrigued by all the sports KGZ were entered in and especially amused by the last: Athletics, Judo, Sailing, Shooting, Swimming, Taekwondo, Weightlifting, Greco-Roman and Freestyle Wrestling. The starting pose for Greco-Roman wrestling – as below left – should not make me giggle quite so much but oh how it does!
I pro-actively took annual leave from my workplace to guarantee the initial requirement of 10 days volunteering. LOCOG had not foreseen the limited drop out. History has proffered a ‘volunteer drop out ratio’ but we went against all the previous models and stats. 2012 was the year when they had too many volunteers. I was no longer needed for 10 days. I was sharing the role with 2 other ladies, unfortunately we never got to meet but we discussed our ‘dignitary’ by email, text and over the phone. He was a stoic young man of few words.
The first day I walked on a bus or tube in my uniform, people looked at me and smiled. In Camberwell and Elephant & Castle, this was big. Also, I would have been visible miles away or in fog, the colour is erm…vibrant.
ExCel became my 2nd home, the foyer of Claridge’s my 3rd and outside of the athlete’s Olympic village – this was most certainly ‘access denied’. Elsewhere, I was so so lucky. When I wasn’t with Baigazy then I could explore the sports, I wasn’t expecting or entitled to watch but if spare seats were available without being inconvenience then yes, we could enjoy the fixtures and on-going competitions. I saw 15 minutes of Jessica Ennis in the main stadium, heard the roars for Usain Bolt but missed it because I was chatting away to a chap outside the arena who had been allocated to hold a directional arrow for the last 3 hours – I felt for him but he was having a great time. The beach volleyball staging at the Royal Horseguards was stunning. One of the few times I saw dear ole Bagzy [my personal nickname for him] smile. He enjoyed gawking at the ladies’ beach volleyball: Russia vs. Great Britain. I’m not sure what he liked best, their skimpy beach volleyball uniforms or we, UK, losing. His international sign language to say lost was a smile and a pretend knife to his throat. Funny east European sense of humour. He smiled!
I looked after his transport and travel arrangements from hotel to sports venue or restaurant. His schedule changed depending on his athletes’ fixtures and it was all about the wrestling. I would ensure he was handed over to the venue protocol teams in the VIP areas and basically ensure he wasn’t wandering the streets of London. Unless he insisted, he could do what he wanted. Thankfully no requests for Stringfellows which had been a question in my training from another Games Maker. It would have been fabulous to have a proper conversation with him and I wish I’d had taken a selfie with him and I, but the phenomenon of selfies hadn’t reached me in 2012.
He did make me smile, now, when he called me 90 minutes earlier than planned one morning, wanting to go somewhere. Explaining to him I lived 60 minutes from where he was, that was a hard start to a day. He wasn’t even ready by the time I’d ran around like a looney getting to him as fast as I could. Thank goodness we had free coffee, even Claridge’s offered me coffee while I waited for him.
I was walking with a bounce in my step each day I was out in my uniform, so many strangers talked to me on public transport, I saw much more sport than I could ever understand and appreciate. I didn’t get to see inside the Greenwich horse arenas nor the aquatics centre but I couldn’t possibly complain.
The last task after my short time with Bagzy was to help with the ‘closing ceremony herding team’. Basically, all the dignitaries always get an invite to the opening and closing ceremonies. Not everyone goes but those that do are coached over to the stadium. The herding is initially getting everyone on a coach but then when they come back… we needed taxis! Lots of taxis. We, volunteers, are hanging out at Royal Courts of Justice, enjoying a little closing party of our own till the crowds descended. A fantastically spooky venue to be in late at night by the way. Then kick into action around midnight. It had to be the craziest most disorganised, funniest hour or so when we’re just hollering, whistling, chasing down black cabs to keep these international VIPs happy. I don’t think the paid organisers were that fussed, they were shattered. No major complaints and about 90 minutes later, we’re VIP free. We say our goodbyes and my work was done.
I have a vague memory of receiving a letter of thanks from Seb Coe and maybe a certificate from David Cameron. It certainly wasn’t needed. I would do it again in a heartbeat and the pleasure was all mine.