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A few weeks before the start of this summer’s Olympics, the roughly 70,000 individuals volunteering for the event received a bag of supplies that likely looked nothing like the official kits of the past.

In addition to a T-shirt, other items of clothing and a water bottle to keep hydrated in the summer heat, came a bottle of hand sanitizer, two face masks and a record book for recording your health.

It’s not like the volunteers are being given hazmat suits, but these items — the familiar first line of defense in the COVID-19 pandemic — are a reminder that the Games are being held under extraordinary circumstances. Still, volunteers seem undeterred from making theirs a positive experience.

“I feel so lucky to get the chance to be involved personally with such a big, global event,” says Ayako Ueda, from Kawasaki. “I am very excited!”

Last week, a decision by the International Olympics Committee and the Japanese and Tokyo metropolitan governments put the kibosh on spectators for most of the events, but volunteers will still be busy assisting athletes, organizers and members of the press up until the Paralympics finish on Sept. 5.

A call to charms

So what does a volunteer do? Well, assistance is needed for an array of activities in all areas of the Games — from checking tickets and welcoming dignitaries to guiding participants and visitors at the Olympic and Paralympic venues.

According to a representative from Tokyo 2020, there are two categories of volunteers: Field Cast members, who are directly involved in Olympic operations, and City Cast members, who are to guide traffic and visitors around the venues. The latter are known as the “face of the Games.”

Training begins for Tokyo Olympics volunteers in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. Baseball and softball games will be played in Fukushima. | KYODO
Training begins for Tokyo Olympics volunteers in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. Baseball and softball games will be played in Fukushima. | KYODO

“Field Cast members will take on around 700 different roles and carry out their activities at over 100 different venues, training sites and other facilities,” the representative says. “Volunteers will be an indispensable part of operations during the Games.”

And it’s not hard to see why. The lengthy list of responsibilities covers more than simply pointing people in the right direction, and highlights just how key the volunteer team is to the event’s success.

Some of the more vital jobs include first responders on alert to provide swift initial medical treatment, displaying event results at competition venues and even playing a supporting role at medal ceremonies.

As a volunteer for the Language Services Team, Ueda will be based at Ariake Tennis Park in Koto Ward, acting as an interpreter for tennis players when they respond to post-match media interviews. She will also assist when athletes are selected to take doping tests, adding that she has “a lot of responsibilities.”

Due to pandemic-related restrictions, volunteer training has been limited, and mostly conducted online.

“It’s a shame, as I had been looking forward to the training opportunities as part of the volunteer journey,” Ueda says. “However, the e-learning content was quite good. There will be one face-to-face training opportunity at the actual venue, which I very much look forward to.”

Japanese hospitality

Speaking on behalf of Tokyo when the city was first bidding for the Olympics in 2013, TV newscaster Christel Takigawa spoke about the importance of omotenashi.

Addressing members of the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, she explained in French: “It means a spirit of selfless hospitality, one that dates back to our ancestors … ‘omotenashi’ explains why Japanese people take care of each other — and our guests — so well.”

While the welcome mat will be somewhat smaller when the Games begin this week, that omotenashi spirit will be no less important. Athletes won’t have as much of a chance to meet the locals or even see the city they’re competing in due to an ongoing state of emergency that aims to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Ueda believes this makes the volunteer even more vital to the Olympic experience.

“Interactions with us volunteers would almost be the only opportunity for (athletes) to experience local hospitality,” she says. “In this sense, I feel that the volunteers’ roles are even more important at Tokyo 2020. I want them to return with very good memories.”

Omotenashi may not have a better representative than 67-year-old volunteer Minako Suzuki.

“Tokyo 2020 will be my second Olympics in Tokyo, I was 10 years old at the 1964 Olympics,” she says. “The 1964 Games opened my 10-year-old eyes to the world and this time I am giving back to Tokyo.”

Thinking back to the ’64 Olympics, which were a pivotal moment in catapulting the city — and the country — out of postwar reconstruction and onto the world stage, Suzuki recalls her horse riding teacher competing as part of Japan’s equestrian team.

“I was so excited and mesmerized when I saw the world’s top equestrians and horses at Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, for the first time,” she says. “They were so beautiful and powerful.”

This time, Suzuki will bring that same sense of wonder to Baji Equestrian Park, located near Komazawa Olympic Park in Setagaya Ward, and Umi no Mori Park in Koto Ward, believing that volunteers will add an affable atmosphere to the celebrations.

“Our omotenashi spirit will help Tokyo 2020,” she says. “I feel so sorry for the international audiences and international volunteers who can not come over to see the Olympics. Under these difficult circumstances, I hope all participants, athletes, horses, staff, media and volunteers will be safe and will enjoy Tokyo 2020.”

“The presence of the volunteers enriches the Games wherever they carry out their activities,” says the Tokyo 2020 representative. “We are confident that they will embrace the important role they have in bringing excitement to the Games.”

An experience to remember

With so much emphasis put on the importance of the volunteer efforts at the Games, it came as a bit of a shock to some of those taking part when Olympics-related job openings started popping up on online employment websites, such as Indeed.

Earlier this month, Japanese media outlets began reporting that part-time positions paying up to ¥2,800 per hour consisted of many of the same duties that volunteers were set to do for free (though travel expenses are being paid). While some volunteers have subsequently withdrawn because of this — as well as concerns over a rise in coronavirus cases in Tokyo and gaffes made by Olympics officials, the previous volunteer count stood at roughly 110,000 — the people The Japan Times spoke to didn’t mention anything about payment and were more excited about the chance to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience — or, in Suzuki’s case, a twice-in-a-lifetime event.

Nineteen-year-old student Tomoya Kishino confesses that he gets excited every time there’s an Olympics, and when the Summer Games were announced for Tokyo, he knew he wanted to be more than just a spectator.

“I wanted to be involved in the Games as a volunteer,” says Kishino, who will be a part of the competition management team at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama’s Chuo Ward. Aside from being a fan, he’s looking to learn communication and hospitality skills that he will be able to make use of in the future.

Volunteers received kits equipped with face masks and hand sanitizer as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. | KYODO
Volunteers received kits equipped with face masks and hand sanitizer as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. | KYODO

“I am most looking forward to interacting with people of many different age groups with whom I don’t usually have the chance to do so,” he says. “Although we are living in difficult times, with the eyes of the world on us, I hope I can fulfill my role in these Games to the best of my ability.”

The experience is also something that volunteer interpreter Ueda will be concentrating on for the next seven weeks.

“For me personally, the Olympics and Paralympics are a symbol of peace and global friendship,” she says. “I see myself as a global citizen, educated overseas and having a lot of friends around the world, and (these Games are) one of the events I wished to be a part of.

“My wish is to be able to say that, after the Olympic and Paralympic Games, this was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life.”

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