Sun, Feb 17, 2019 - Page 11 News List

Olympic volunteers: Opportunity or exploitation?


Invitees participate in an orientation meeting for volunteers for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo on Saturday last week.

Photo: AP / Kyodo News

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.

“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.

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