On one of his first days volunteering at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, Mosese Rarasea, 37, found himself starstruck.

He was stationed at the beach volleyball courts in Shiokaze Park in Odaiba, next to Tokyo Bay. While manning an information desk, he spotted German beach volleyball player Laura Ludwig. He tried not to stare, but as an avid beach volleyball player himself he was a bit of a fan.

“I learned a lot of volleyball moves from watching her,” Rarasea says. “She came to ask for the volleyballs, all I could manage was ‘guten tag.’ But after she returned the balls, I built up enough confidence to have a proper conversation.”

Pretty soon they were talking about volleyball and raising kids, “It was great.”

Born in Fiji, Rarasea has lived in Japan for 11 years with his Japanese wife and three children ages 1, 5 and 7. He applied to be a volunteer at the Games hoping that it would look good on his resume, but still thought his role would be limited to standing in the background and handing out volleyballs.

He never imagined that he would be able to actually interact with the athletes on a first-name basis. “Saying ‘excuse me, sir or madam,’” didn’t really work with them as it created a sense of distance, Rarasea says. What the athletes seemed to appreciate, he felt, was a little bit of familiarity, particularly at a Games where traditional support systems — family, friends and fans — were not around due to the pandemic.

“I would step up and try to handle situations as easily as possible,” Rarasea says. “The athletes are here to represent their countries and they’re stressed out, so you don’t want to (fuel that stress).”

As the delayed 2020 Olympics approached, it became clear that putting on matches in front of mass crowds could create superspreader events, so, on July 8, the government decided to ban spectators from attending. The athletes themselves were instructed to remain in an Olympic “bubble,” which meant they couldn’t walk around the host city and interact with its residents. In many cases, the Olympic volunteers became the only locals the athletes spoke to.

Rarasea spent more than 10 days assisting beach volleyball players and their coaches with anything they needed. As the days went by, he says the competitors he was assisting began to open up to him about performance anxiety and other concerns.

“They only have each other to talk to, they don’t have anybody outside (the bubble) due to the pandemic,” Rarasea says, adding that he thinks it was simply nice for them to be able to interact with someone new.

Talking points: Ekaterina Ulanova (far right) stands by as an athlete representing the Russian Olympic Committee is interviewed. | COURTESY OF EKATERINA ULANOVA
Talking points: Ekaterina Ulanova (far right) stands by as an athlete representing the Russian Olympic Committee is interviewed. | COURTESY OF EKATERINA ULANOVA

While Rarasea was helping out at the beach volleyball courts, volunteer interpreter Ekaterina Ulanova took on a similarly supportive role at Yumenoshima Park Archery Field in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. The 28-year-old Russian native was called upon to assist when archer Svetlana Gomboeva fainted during her qualifying round on a hot and humid day of competition.

“I remember my manager just came to me and said, ‘Katya, a Russian translator is needed because a girl has heatstroke,” Ulanova recalls. She went above and beyond what was called for, offering Gomboeva words of comfort to make sure the young archer was in a place to be able to continue performing. She finished 45th in the qualifying round that day.

“I wanted to support (the visiting athletes) emotionally,” Ulanova says, adding that Gomboeva’s situation made it clear that she was “needed not only as an interpreter but also as a mental health supporter, which is the most important thing in your life.”

Ulanova grew up in Siberia and came to Japan as a student around 2½ years ago. She is set to graduate next month from the University of Tokyo with a master’s degree in petroleum engineering. However, she became more aware of the importance of mental health amid the pandemic. Alongside Khamida Malianchinova, she hosted a podcast on the topic titled “Tokyo State of Mind.”

“For myself, and what I heard from others, the first year of the pandemic was the most difficult, and people didn’t know how to deal with their mental health,” Ulanova says. “Compared to that first year, though, I think people have now adapted to life during the pandemic and (Japan’s) state of emergency. Many of my acquaintances have started new hobbies to cope with their mental health problems.”

The dirty work: Volunteers clean the floor of the Ariake Arena in Tokyo after a men’s volleyball match. | KYODO
The dirty work: Volunteers clean the floor of the Ariake Arena in Tokyo after a men’s volleyball match. | KYODO

A study released last year found that volunteering is good for your own mental health. So, in addition to getting front-row seats to an event that many of us could only watch via television, both Ulanova and Rarasea may have received a boost simply by helping out.

“The Olympics made me feel proud that I was contributing to an event that unites people from all over the world,” Ulanova says. “You feel special about yourself in those moments you have as a volunteer.”

Rarasea adds with a chuckle that being in such close proximity to the Olympians must have improved his own game, but he says that it mostly taught him how people can overcome difficult situations and succeed against the odds — he was not originally chosen as a volunteer but after thousands of other volunteers dropped out of their roles due to COVID-19 concerns, he got called off the bench.

“It gave me a chance to interact with (athletes and coaches) from other countries,” he says, recalling a conversation with Italian player Daniele Lupo in which he talked to the silver-medal winner about his allergy to bees. Rarasea says that he hoped chats like that created a more human connection that was helpful in making the environment more comfortable for athletes.

“Some athletes were very happy to finally be here because, from their perspective, they’re at their peak,” he says. By being there to assist, “I hope I played a positive role in their so-called mental game.”

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