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Debate grows over paying compensation to Olympic ‘volunteers’

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

A  constant concern about the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics is its cost. Projected operating expenses for the games as of the end of last year was ¥1.35 trillion based on calculations made last May. Although the figure is smaller than it once was, the International Olympic Committee says it is still too high. Given that measures to address weather-related issues such as typhoons and high temperatures have yet to be factored into the budget, the cost could go even higher.

According to the Tokyo Shimbun, the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the central government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government have together established a committee to “unify operating costs” in order to monitor them more effectively. However, this committee, which has only held one meeting, has not addressed the budget of the organizing committee itself.

Cost is the main reason for the all-volunteer character of much of the 2020 Olympics staffing plans, and last year a blogger named Motoya Okutani wrote a post about volunteers that attracted attention. Okutani is a sports pharmacist. He monitors athletes’ use of drugs and carries out testing, and in the blog post he objected to the organizers’ solicitation of volunteer sports pharmacists to carry out anti-doping procedures during the games.

The volunteers must be certified sports pharmacists and familiar with the procedures of the Japan Anti-Doping Association. They must pass a rigorous screening process and then be available to work at least 10 days. They must also be able to communicate in English. But they will not be compensated for their work and must pay for their own transportation and accommodation.

In a related article in the Asahi Shimbun, the reporter says his mother, a pharmacist, spent a year qualifying to be a sports pharmacist for the Olympics but doesn’t think she can afford to take 10 days off. There are 7,900 certified sports pharmacists in Japan and Okutani has asked the organizers to provide volunteers with at least a per diem. An expert in volunteer services for sporting events told the reporter that usually in such circumstances volunteers who belong to a particular profession work for free in order to help publicize the work of that profession and show how it “contributes to society.” The reporter wonders if the organizing committee is really taking the good will of sports pharmacists into consideration, or are they simply trying to save money.

And it isn’t just pharmacists. In 2016, Kyoto University foreign language professor Noriyuki Nishiyama urged interpreters in an open letter not to work for free. The requirements for volunteer interpreters are as strict as those for pharmacists, and Nishiyama thinks they exceed what would normally be expected for noncompensated volunteers. If all the person has to do is “stand on a corner and give directions,” he said, then there’s no problem, but these interpreters have to communicate directly with a diverse cross-section of non-Japanese, including high-level officials. They should be paid accordingly.

Author Ryu Honma has taken up this crusade. In a tweet he posted last summer that received about 21,000 likes and was retweeted about 38,000 times, Honma urged young people not to volunteer for the Olympics, which he insists is a commercial enterprise.

In a discussion with Honma on the internet news show “News Op-Ed,” fellow journalist Takashi Uesugi, who used to write for The New York Times, pointed out that the word “volunteer” in Japan means “to work for no pay,” whereas the English meaning is simply to offer services of your own free will. In the United States, members of the so-called all-volunteer army are paid.

Honma, a former employee of advertising company Hakuhodo who was once imprisoned for insider trading, is extremely interested in Japan’s advertising juggernaut Dentsu, which has a huge stake in the Olympics. During a Tokyo symposium on Dec. 14, he outlined the results of his research and pointed out that the bid committee proposal stated in 2013 that the organizers would raise ¥92 billion through sponsors with Dentsu’s help. As of Dec. 4, that amount had ballooned to an estimated ¥399 billion.

The Tokyo Olympics now has more than 40 sponsors, whereas there were only about 15 each for the London and Rio De Janeiro games. Honma could not find any explanation of how the sponsorship funds were collected nor a breakdown of how they are being spent, and he sent emails to the organizers to find out. He also asked if it was fair to not pay volunteers if the organizers had received so much money from sponsors.

The only answers Honma received were statements taken from the organizers’ publicity materials: The volunteers will come away with “precious memories” and gain “invaluable experience.” But someone from the organizing committee also called Honma’s editor at the weekly magazine that had commissioned his story and complained about the questions, saying that no other media were making such inquiries. The magazine, which Honma hasn’t identified, canceled the article.

Uesugi thought that was par for the course, since, except for the Sankei Shimbun and Chunichi/Tokyo Shimbun, all the national newspaper companies, along with their broadcast affiliates, are official sponsors of the 2020 Olympics, and, as Honma implied, they are not contributing money out of sports-loving altruism. The media expects to profit from the Olympics with the help of Dentsu, and none of their employees are “volunteering” their labor. They are working in concert with the organizers and getting paid for it.

At both the symposium and on Uesugi’s show, Honma acknowledged that he has heard from people who say they are happy to volunteer for free, and he thinks that’s fine as long as they understand that other people are making money off of their work. However, he wonders if the university students the organizers covet so much can afford to volunteer. Normally, they sit for end-of-term exams in the summer around the time the games take place. The organizers have already asked universities to move up or postpone the exams, and some are apparently willing to do their part, regardless of how it affects their students’ studies.