Ashley Ophorst, 28, had tears rolling down her cheeks as she watched the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony at her home in the Dutch town of Waalwijk. Ophorst, a master’s student of the International Olympic Association-supported Olympic Studies programme, was all set for Japan where she had been chosen as an Olympics volunteer when the pandemic disrupted the games and her plans. “I thought I had made peace with the fact that the authorities were going to have only 500 international volunteers for the games and I wasn’t one of them. But I had a hard time watching opening ceremony and I cried,” said Ophorst, a fencing enthusiast who was a volunteer at the Rio Olympics in 2016. “This has made me more determined to go to Paris 2024.”
Apart from several athletes, including some who had reached Tokyo, who missed out on the Olympics action due to covid-19 and the accompanying restrictions, the single biggest group to miss out on Tokyo 2020 was that of volunteers, who have been the backbone of all major sporting events in recent times.
From waste management to running the staff canteens, from sanitising the venues to handing out masks, from managing transport hubs to driving participants and staff, from prepping the medals for the presentation ceremony to helping athletes, referees and journalists, volunteers do all the work at the Olympics. Volunteering is an unpaid role and volunteers need to make their own arrangements for travel to the host city and their boarding and lodging there. The volunteer job confirmation letter does help secure a visa.
For Tokyo 2020, 110,000 volunteers were originally selected from the 204,680 who had applied to be a part of the world’s biggest celebration of sports. Once the pandemic hit and the games were postponed, the volunteer job offers to all but 500 overseas volunteers were rescinded, said a volunteer who received a mail from the Tokyo Organising Committee for the Olympics and Paralympic Games. In the end, about 70,000 volunteers worked behind the scenes in blue tees and grey pants in the Tokyo heat and humidity to ensure the success of the Games. But Ophorst wasn’t one of them.
Others who missed out were Delhi-based media professional Anasuya Mathur, events organiser Sylvain Tartes of Paris, Prague-based consultant Michaela Koskova and artist Paola Guintini from Cagliari, Italy. All four, like Ophorst, had volunteered at the Rio Olympics. Of the four, only Mathur had been offered a job for Tokyo 2020 but due to the travel restrictions following India’s second wave the offer was withdrawn. The rest had gone through the online application process and were sent a rejection letter. Having missed out on the Tokyo action, again like Ophorst, all four are looking forward to get involved in the Paris Olympics in 2024.
For Ophorst, Olympics is the only event in the world where people of all ages, race and backgrounds come together. “You truly see the three focus points of the Olympic movement — friendship, respect and excellence — come together,” she says, adding that she was on WhatsApp groups with volunteers in Tokyo who kept her up-to-date.
Tartes, 27, had his first taste of the summer games in London 2012 and he was so moved by the experience that he signed up as a volunteer for the Rio Olympics. At Rio, during breaks from his work at the basketball arena, he hopped from event to event cheering on French athletes, no matter what the sport. “I am watching the Tokyo Games on my computer, but switching arenas was easier and more fun. The atmosphere at the Olympics is of one big party and I am going to be a part of it when it comes to Paris,” he says.
Guintini, who volunteered at Rio and was a manager at Rome for the recently-concluded Euro 2020 tournament. She admits the empty stands in Tokyo would have felt weird had she been picked up as volunteer there. “I enjoyed working at the Euros despite the pandemic and it made me realise that spectators make the Olympics as much as the athletes. It could have been weird with all those restrictions because I have lived the experience to the fullest but I had goosebumps even while watching the events on TV so I’d have enjoyed Tokyo 2020 anyway,” says the Italian, adding, if needed she would hitchhike her way to Paris but she won’t miss it. “Olympics are a fantastic display of the best values of humankind, especially friendship beyond barriers,” adds Guintini, who is hoping to find a job with the Organising Committee for Paris 2024.
Mathur, 45, is also gunning for Paris 2024. “I was bitterly disappointed to miss out on Tokyo 2020, which has been a unique Olympics in so many ways. To be a part of this global event that draws athletes from the smallest villages to largest cities, where you could round the corner and bump into the fastest man in the world, or walk into the stadium cafeteria and eat your meal with newfound pals whose language you do not speak. There are such incredible examples of camaraderie and sportsmanship,” says Mathur, who volunteered at London and Rio Olympics. “I get to live that dream every four years. Of course, I am going to Paris in 2024.”
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.