Volunteering at the Tokyo Olympics Games: a MEXT Alumni’s Experience

Even as the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games become history, the contributions of more than 70,000 volunteers who made day-to-day operations of the events happen should not be forgotten. Volunteers were deeply involved in the logistics of getting athletes, officials, and members of the media where they were supposed to go, as well as providing interpretation, medical first-response, and technical support services. They braved anxieties of continued COVID-19 infections and public opposition to the Games and made sure that athletes and sports officials from around the world remained concentrated in doing their best for the world to see.

Keiyin Lam, a 2012 MEXT Scholar who studied at Kyoto University and currently works in a marketing role for a major IT firm in Tokyo, described her personal experience working as a volunteer for the Tokyo Olympics. According to her, the volunteer recruitment campaign officially started in August 2018, with interviews and orientations taking place in February 2019. Before the official announcement in March 2020 that the Games were postponed, volunteers already participated in test events in May 2019 and online “general training” in October 2019. Volunteers received their role-specific training starting in March 2021 before receiving their volunteer uniforms in May 2021. 

Keiyin’s experience sheds light on what happens behind the scenes as the Games mobilize a massive amount of manpower to make sure the events go smoothly.

What were you doing at the Olympics?

I was a volunteer for beach volleyball matches. We were on the court during matches to make sure they operate smoothly. There are 12 volunteers assigned to each match. Six were responsible for ball retrieving and passing, making sure extra balls are not on the court during play, and enough balls are always available for the serve. Six others were responsible for raking and smoothing out the sand during timeouts and other non-play periods, so that court always remains ready for play. I was one of the ball retrievers.

I was directly involved in 14 different matches between 24 July and 7 August 2021, rotating between morning, afternoon, and night shifts, interspersed with off days. During the first week of play, I was involved in two matches per shift, while the frequency was reduced to one match per shift in the second week. Aside from the actual matches, I also attended training from 18 to 24 July 2021, the week before the first match was played on 24 July. To do the training and volunteer work, I took some paid leave from my company. My manager at work was quite supportive of my volunteering at the Olympics. 

What was the training like?

There were two types of training. “General training” started in 2019 and was online only. Volunteers were assigned videos to watch that provided them with background information on the Olympic Games, including its timeline, slogan, and history. There was a particular focus on how to handle people with handicaps, including questions about different scenarios followed by suggested best practices. The content is basic information that serves as the minimum required knowledge for an Olympics volunteer.

“Position training” was the physical face-to-face training that took place for six hours a day the week before matches started. On Day 1, the volunteers were taught the rules of the game and when volunteers should act. For my position as a ball retriever, these included the timing and time limits for passing and going out to the court to retrieve the balls. The remaining days consisted of rehearsals, where staff members would pretend to be players and act out different scenarios for volunteers to practice. 

How did you get this volunteering opportunity anyways?

I first saw a Facebook ad posted by the official account of the Japan Olympics Committee and submitted the online application form in the summer of 2018. The application, which could be filled in either Japanese or English, included basic biographical information plus short answers to questions like why you want to be a volunteer, what you want to gain from the experience, as well as what were your previous experiences volunteering in sporting events. 

I heard back about my application in the winter of 2018 and attended a physical orientation, during which officials told us about the whole process moving forward. At that time, the officials still assumed that the Olympics would happen in 2020, so they talked about how we will get our assignment in early 2019.

I did get my first assignment in March 2019, but I turned it down because it was for an event service leader, helping to direct visitors to where they want to go, but in Sapporo. I put down Hokkaido as the second preference after Tokyo in the volunteer application form, but COVID-19 was spreading fast in Hokkaido at that time, so I wanted to stay in Tokyo. I turned down the second assignment too because it was also in Hokkaido. 

So when I got my third assignment, for the beach volleyball position, I decided that I could not say no. It was in Tokyo and I did not know when I would get another assignment if I said no again. I heard others who took up the beach volleyball position also rejected two previous assignments before accepting this one, but officially, there is no limit on how many times one can reject assignments before accepting.

What did you enjoy about the whole experience?

Before I started volunteering, I did not know anything about beach volleyball. Because of this opportunity, I not only learned the basic rules of the game but also now have a firsthand understanding of what people are doing on the court when I watch sports on TV. I would never have gone out of my way to learn about beach volleyball without this opportunity. 

There were also more than 50 people in my team, ranging from those in their 50s to energetic high school and college students. There may have been imbalances in the age groups, but there were no generation gaps and everyone worked well together. The whole group has a LINE chat for announcements during the Games but can still be used to organize reunions in the future. I do frequently keep in touch with several non-Japanese volunteers from the same group.

What did you not enjoy?

There were communication issues because judges assumed that volunteers would have much more knowledge about beach volleyball, even though many volunteers were learning about it for the very first time. As such, the judges would communicate without much background information, with the expectation that volunteers already know what to do. 

It was also frustrating and confusing that Olympics officials kept changing match procedures during position training. They would make volunteers try out different procedures, and decide on which ones are the best before finalizing. For instance, they added a new process for volunteers to greet the players before each match. These changes meant information about what to do on the court was changing every day during the training. Thankfully, the procedure was finalized before the first matches started.

On top of all this, there was no direct communication between normal volunteers and judges. Judges would communicate to department heads, who would then communicate with volunteer leaders. These leaders, chosen for the passion they showed in their application forms and prior volunteering experiences, would coordinate the shifts and assignments for normal volunteers without the latter’s prior knowledge. 

So what is your overall assessment of the experience?

I would say that I was lucky not to quit when so many other volunteers did. There were some frustrations during the experience, but those were minor. Much more importantly, through this experience, I was able to make new friends and develop a growing interest in beach volleyball. So for those who may be interested in volunteering for the upcoming Paris Olympics, when applications open next year, I would recommend jumping at the opportunity! 

Written by: Xiaochen Su, Ph.D., the Managing Director of the Study Abroad Research Institute, a non-profit organization seeking to promote study abroad in Japan.

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