Unpaid Olympic volunteers do almost everything: guide athletes around, greet dignitaries and translate for lost fans. International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials acknowledge the Games could not be held without them.
The Olympics are awash with cash, but volunteers work for free. That is the case next year at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, where about 80,000 volunteers are to be needed. Just more than 200,000 people have applied with orientation and interviews for Japan residents starting this month.
Most do not seem to mind, thrilled about the chance and largely unaware that their unpaid labor enriches Olympic sponsors, powerful TV networks and the IOC.
Photo: AP / Kyodo News
“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.
Volunteers are lured by the Olympic brand, the glamor of being behind the scenes, a sense of altruism and, for younger volunteers, a hope that the work might lead to connections and a full-time job.
“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, who attended a Tokyo orientation for volunteers.
The 26-year-old said that his employer is giving him five days of paid Olympic leave.
One aspiring volunteer, Masanobu Ishii, said he wants to convey the spirit of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality.
Volunteers also get involved out of civic duty or patriotism — and the chance to brag to friends. Many older volunteers often do not need the money.
California-based labor economist Andy Schwarz said that some volunteers would even pay to play.
“It’s easy to imagine the Olympics charging for the right to help if the honor were high enough,” Schwarz said.
Olympic volunteers typically pay their own lodging and transportation to the host city. They get meals on the days they work, some training and uniforms.
In Tokyo, they are to get up to ￥1,000 (US$9) daily to get to work. Tokyo organizers would also provide some insurance. Almost two-thirds of the applicants for the Tokyo Olympics are Japanese, and almost two-thirds are women.
A study done for the IOC on volunteers at the 2000 Sydney Olympics said that their value was at least US$60 million for 40,000 volunteers. Twenty years later, Tokyo organizers are to use twice that many.
Separately, the Tokyo City Government is to field another 30,000 unpaid volunteers.
Proponents argue that volunteers embody the spirit of the Games, harkening to a time almost 50 years ago when Olympic athletes were unpaid amateurs.
The IOC champions their use despite some complaints on social media in Tokyo that volunteers are similar to “forced labor.”
IOC member John Coates, who heads the inspection team for Tokyo, strongly defended the use of unpaid help.
“They don’t have to apply if they don’t want to,” the Australian said. “The economics of it necessitates having to have volunteers. 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, handsomely.
Tokyo is spending at least US$20 billion to organize the Olympics, and organizers have raised US$3 billion in local sponsorships — twice as much as any previous Olympics.
IOC members receive per diems of US$450 to US$900 when they are on Olympic business, as well as other generous perks such as flights and top hotels.
IOC president Thomas Bach gets no salary, but receives an allowance of about US$250,000 per year as a “volunteer” president.
The IOC typically operates with a US$1 billion cash reserve, and had total revenue in the 2013-2016 Olympic cycle of US$5.7 billion. It says it returns 90 percent of its revenue to sports federations and national Olympic committees.
US network NBC is paying US$7.75 billion for the rights to six Olympics beginning in 2022, an extension on a US$4.38 billion contract.
The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics had problems finding volunteers. When the Games began, organizers said that about 30 percent on any given day failed to show up for work, which organizers said was anticipated. Brazil also lacked a volunteer culture, and entrenched poverty meant that mostly the white and wealthy signed up.
Using volunteers also means that those with free time are putting it toward the Olympics, rather than other charitable endeavors.
Former Irish president Mary Robinson, who has also served as UN high commissioner for human rights, cautioned about using volunteers in mega-sports events if they undercut the market for people who need work.
Robinson is now serving with the Switzerland-based Centre for Sports and Human Rights, which was launched last year.
“Volunteers can play a role, but not if it displaces the potential for people having jobs where the entities can well afford to give people the opportunity to have gainful employment rather than work as volunteers,” Robinson said.
David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University, said that organizers and Olympic officials should also work for free, or for smaller salaries.
“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. If they [Olympic officials] really thought this was all OK, they should obviously volunteer to work for free.”
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