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Olympic Volunteers: Great Chance or Exploitation?

FILE - A volunteer gets a security check during a security drill for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Jim Armstrong)
FILE - A volunteer gets a security check during a security drill for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Jim Armstrong)
Olympic Volunteers: Great Chance or Exploitation?
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Unpaid Olympic volunteers do almost everything: guide athletes around, welcome important people and help lost visitors. International Olympic Committee officials say the games could not be held without these volunteers. They are praised and thanked by presidents and prime ministers.

Even with billions of dollars to spend on the games, there remains the need for people who will work for free. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will require an estimated 80,000 volunteers. And many Japanese people are seeking the chance to take part. About 200,000 have begun the process to gain a volunteer position this month.

The unpaid labor enriches Olympic advertisers, powerful television networks and the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee. But there are critics of the situation.

“To me, it’s very clearly economic exploitation,” said Joel Maxcy, president of the International Association of Sports Economists and a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Maxcy described a situation in which volunteers create the product but “someone else is collecting nearly all of the money derived from those labor efforts.”

So why do people volunteer at the games? For one, it is exciting to be connected to the powerful Olympic brand and to get close to star athletes.

“I’m willing to work for free if I can get a chance to see and talk to Olympians from all over the world in person,” said Yutaro Tokunaga. The 26-year-old attended a recent program for volunteers. He said his employer is giving him five paid days off from work during the Olympics.

Masanobu Ishii is also seeking a volunteer position. He said he wanted to demonstrate the spirit of “omotenashi,” or Japanese hospitality. Some volunteers work the games from a sense of civic duty or to show their patriotism. Many older volunteers do not need more money.

Andy Schwarz is a California-based labor economist. He said some people would even pay for the chance to volunteer. “It’s easy to imagine the Olympics charging for the right to help if the honor were high enough,” he said.

Olympic volunteers usually pay their own hotel and transportation costs. They eat for free on the days they work. Their training is free and they are provided with official clothing that they can keep at no cost. In Tokyo, volunteers will get up to 1,000 yen daily, about nine U.S. dollars, to get to work on the city’s massive train system.

More than 65 percent of the volunteer candidates for the Tokyo Olympics are Japanese. About the same percentage are women.

A study done for the IOC about volunteers at the 2000 Sydney Olympics said their value was at least $60 million for 40,000 volunteers. Now, games organizers will use two times that number of unpaid workers.

Separately, the Tokyo city government will use another 30,000 unpaid volunteers.

Some say the volunteers represent the spirit of the games. They recall almost 50 years ago when Olympic athletes were unpaid amateurs. The IOC expresses pride in its volunteers. IOC member John Coates heads the inspection team for Tokyo. He strongly defended the use of unpaid help.

“They don’t have to (volunteer) if they don’t want to,” the Australian said. “They get trained, they get their uniforms. They are part of something very exciting. ... I don’t think there’s a case for paying volunteers.”

Almost everyone else working the Olympics gets paid. Many get paid a lot. Tokyo is spending at least $20 billion to organize the Olympics. Organizers have raised $3 billion in local advertisements. That is two times the amount of any other Olympics.

IOC members like Coates receive daily pay of between $450 to $900 when they are on Olympic business. They are also provided first class air travel and stays at top hotels.

IOC President Thomas Bach is officially described as a volunteer. But the organization gives him about $250,000 per year. The IOC’s total revenue in the 2013-2016 Olympic cycle was $5.7 billion. It says it returns 90 percent of its revenue to sports groups and national Olympic committees.

American network NBC is paying $7.75 billion for the rights to six Olympics beginning in 2022, an extension on a $4.38 billion contract.

Tracey Dickson studies volunteerism at Canberra University in Australia. She says there are many reasons for volunteering that are more than just “economics.” She said people like the friendships they make during the experience.

“I can understand the economic argument,” she said. “But if they were being paid, it would be a real job with real expectations.” She said a completely different feeling would be created if they were paid.

“If they are just employees well, they’re just another employee. There’s so much value in that feel-good factor,” she added.

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics had problems with unpaid workers. Organizers said about 30 percent of the volunteers failed to show up on any given day of the two weeks of competition.

Mary Robinson is the former president of Ireland as well as the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She worries about using volunteers in places where there is a lot of poverty and paying jobs are needed.

Robinson is now serving with the Switzerland-based Centre for Sports and Human Rights, an organization established last year.

She says volunteers should not be used by organizations like the IOC that have enough money to pay people.

David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University, said that organizers and Olympic officials should also work for free, or for less pay.

“If the volunteers were paid, there would be less money for everyone else,” he said. “The Olympics have learned people will work for free, so they take advantage of this.”

I’m Susan Shand. And I'm Jonathan Evans.

Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English from an original report by The Associated Press.

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Words in This Story

athlete – n. one who engages in sports

exploit – v. to take advantage of someone or something

derive – v. to take from

hospitality – n. to welcome someone into your home, country etc.

uniform – n. official clothing worn by workers or the military

amateur – adj. someone who is not a professional and does not get paid

revenue – n. money that is made by a business or organizat