Unpaid volunteers worth millions to Olympic Games

Unpaid volunteers worth millions to Olympic Games

Published Oct. 25, 2014 9:25 a.m. ET


Rio needs 70,000 unpaid volunteers for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics, and Brazilian Olympic medalist Ricardo Prado is making a pitch with a deadline for signups just three weeks away.

''Without the athletes, the games can't happen,'' he says in a recruiting advertisement. ''But without the volunteers, it's the same.''

The International Olympic Committee promotes volunteers as the spirit of the games, recalling a time when athletes were unpaid amateurs. They do thousands of jobs - greet fans, escort athletes and give directions around town - and many deliver specialized services. They're the smiling faces of the host nation, often praised at the opening and closing ceremonies by monarchs, presidents and prime ministers.


They also save organizers at least $100 million in salaries - and possibly more.

''There is a question to be asked: Is the exchange really even, or is it unequal?'' said Laurence Chalip, who conducted a study for the IOC on volunteers at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Volunteers are not only unpaid, but they pay their own lodging and transportation to the host city. They get transportation to venues and meals only on the days they work, some training and uniforms to treasure.

Chalip calculated their value in Sydney at $60 million, and that was for only 40,000 volunteers. A very conservative estimate suggests it would cost at least $100 million to pay Rio's 70,000 volunteers a minimum wage to work two weeks at the games. Many will work much more. Anything above the minimum wage and the bill doubles or triples.

It would rise further if highly skilled volunteers, such as doctors and other medical professionals, were paid normal wages. Rio plans to use about 1,000 medical volunteers.

The operating budget - the budget for simply running the games themselves - is $3 billion. Paying volunteers would boost the budget by about 3 percent.

Overall, Brazil is spending about $20 billion - a mix of public and private money - to prepare the games, building sports and urban infrastructure.

''The question is not so much whether we should - or should not - pay $100 million more out of an operating budget of $3 billion,'' Christophe Dubi, Olympic Games Executive Director, said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''It is about the spirit of volunteerism.''

Dubi said the operating budget was tight, and paying volunteers would not be easy.

''The money is really scarce and they (organizers) are looking for ways and means to save money,'' he said.

Earlier this year the US network NBC agreed to pay the IOC $7.75 billion for the rights to six Olympics beginning in 2022, reflecting the value of the Olympic brand, built partially by volunteer labor.

The IOC also has about $1 billion in the bank, a reserve for emergencies.

''They (volunteers) feel it is all wonderful participating, when in fact the wonderfulness is of their own creation,'' said Chalip, who studies sports policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ''They feel like it's a gift, when it's actually something they are giving.''

Chalip said working ''backstage'' motivated volunteers, offering a glimpse of what most see from afar.

''Some who had worked their allotted hours in Sydney were angry they couldn't keep working,'' he said.

Dr. Arin Saha, a surgeon who volunteered at the 2012 London Olympics, termed his service ''unforgettable.''

''I found the experience of volunteering fantastic and would have been one that I would happily have paid for,'' he said in an email.

Every recent Olympic host has a different challenge finding volunteers.

Britain and Australia had engrained cultures of volunteering. Greece and China did not.

Brazil is more like China or Greece. The country lacks a volunteer-philanthropic tradition, partially because of its stark economic inequality. This means the poor can't afford to work for free. That narrows the pool, leaving the better-off to work without pay.

Flavia Fontes, Rio volunteer manager, said she was recruiting from the city's slums (favelas), hoping to give the poor a chance. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said months ago the poor would be given ''subsidies'' for Olympic tickets. Surveys show they were priced out of this year's World Cup.

''We really want to have a mix,'' Fontes told The Associated Press. ''We don't really want it just to be the whites. We really want it to be a mix of what Brazil is all about.''

Although Brazil bills itself as a racial democracy, blacks make up the vast majority of the poor with whites of European decent in charge in business and politics.

Rio hopes 300,000 will register for the 70,000 available positions. So far only 120,000 have signed up with the deadline looming on Nov. 15. Fontes declined to say she was having problems, but acknowledged Brazilians might need a ''push'' in a Latin country where people often act at the last minute.

Non-Brazilians are expected to make up 5 percent of the final 70,000.

''I think we just need to talk to more people,'' Fontes said. ''We need to meet face-to-face with the poor community so they understand the games first, and the values. When they do, they'll want to be part of it.''

But only if they can afford to.


Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP