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Social media lambaste 2020 Olympic volunteer program

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have started accepting applications from those hoping to volunteer at the games a little less from two years from now. As you might suspect, Japan’s online community had plenty to say about the issue from the second it went live.

Many people viewed the attempt to drum up volunteers for the games with cynicism. To be fair, this criticism started long before the organizers started accepting applications online.

When the organizing committee first unveiled its plan, it stated up front that volunteers wouldn’t receive any monetary compensation for their services. The organizers also said they hoped to attract a number of students by offering university credits in exchange for doing specific tasks. Twitter users began to criticize the plan, with some arguing that college kids shouldn’t be put in a position in which they’d have to deal with this.

The lack of pay also ruffled feathers, inspiring a number of netizens and web publications to describe the plan as “black volunteering” (after the “black companies” tag given to firms that exercise exploitative and illicit work practices). While the concept of volunteering might imply an altruistic spirit, plenty pointed out that the Olympics receive billions of dollars from sponsorship. Offering to help put on the world’s largest sporting event without monetary compensation isn’t the same as donating a little time to your local dog rescue organization.

One particular jab along such lines came from a parody site billed as a “student volunteer support group.” What looks at first like straight-faced boosterism soon reveals itself to be a satire about volunteering for the event, which also pokes fun at the expected high temperatures and costs of putting the event on. The message, in case you miss it: “Olympics bad.”

The organizers subsequently reversed course and offered a card worth ¥1,000 a day to cover transportation, but this failed to change the general discussion online. Instead, the proposal was met with sarcasm and digital eye rolling.

A number of people online have noted that profitable companies such as advertising titan Dentsu are set to benefit from the Olympics, so why should they get to have their cake and eat it too?

However, the conversation shifted once the online application form was launched, and it didn’t take people long to point out what is needed to apply.

The instructions greet applicants by warning them that it should take about 30 minutes to go through the entire process. Scroll down a touch more and applicants are told they’ll need to upload some form of government-issued identification to confirm they are who they say they are and, possibly, include any relevant language certificates they might possess.

Some argued that the application process was over-the-top, with at least one Twitter user wondering whether sending in answers by fax would be simpler.

Others made fun of the website’s overall design.   

Making fun of archaic-looking Japanese websites is a pastime shared by all — prepare to shed a tear for Geocities — but the page devoted to volunteers for Tokyo 2020 went a lot further than anything that could once be found on AOL.

As Twitter users and hosts on AbemaTV demonstrated, scrolling down the page on a smartphone could prompt warning boxes to pop up, giving users the same experience as when visiting the sketchier corners of the internet.

A reporter at Yahoo Japan uncovered a plethora of errors while trying to sign up, including a calendar where every date is replaced with “NaN.” The site was so bad, some thought it was designed by somebody who was deliberately trying to frustrate people.

The website was created by French company Atos, and many have speculated that it probably cost the government millions of yen. The mere thought of this prompted anger online before the organizers responded by saying … they wouldn’t change anything.

Volunteers have been staples of the Olympics for decades. The 2012 Summer Games in London spawned breathless celebrations of the unpaid helpers. The Rio edition had a few similar odes, but thousands also quit during the games. It was the same story at Pyeongchang. Many are starting to see the Olympics as less of a celebration and more of a boondoggle.

One counterargument appearing online in Japan following the volunteer snafu is the drive to get nostalgic for the 1964 Games in the capital. That event revolutionized the country and many college-age volunteers helped to make it a success.

As Twitter user @amiromii noted, however, those volunteers were paid an amount of money that was attractive to them at the time.

The times have since changed, and if Tokyo hopes to pull off a successful games in 2020, it will have to adapt to new realities. The coding on its website looks like a pretty good starting point.