Friday, 17 August 2012

The Games Maker Legacy

The words which come to mind when thinking about London’s Games Makers include: cheerful, flexible, engaged, optimistic, generous, confident and dedicated. 

Collaborating with Olympic Volunteers on The Last Mile has been a joy and a privilege.  I say collaborate because, despite being paid to manage an area around Greenwich Park, interaction with volunteers has not been anything like work.  Not a grumbler or egoist in sight, operations have been made fun, easy and pleasurable.  And, given half a chance, I’d hire each and every one five times over.

The Volunteer Games Makers are living proof that a positive frame of mind and a healthy dose of good-will goes a long way.  And side by side with our athletes, the volunteers have done much to inspire a generation – reigniting our appreciation for cheerful and honest service, for generosity, camaraderie and personal responsibility. 

David Cameron captured our collective admiration well when he said he wished he could bottle Games Maker spirit.  So as many of these wonderful volunteers prepare to go back to their pre-Olympic lives, and we wait to meet a new round of happy faces at the Paralympics, it leaves me wondering: what can Londoners do, individually and collectively, to try and preserve the volunteer legacy?  

I imagine there are many ways to emulate the example set by volunteers… but here are a few questions to help us kick-start: Can we continue to smile at strangers on the street?  Can we step back and let people pass rather than push and shove onto public transport?  Can we stay away from the office water-cooler and give each other the benefit of the doubt?  Can we believe in ourselves and the prospect of making a difference?  Can we give before expecting to receive?  Can we be positive despite the temptation to criticise and complain?  Can we remember that the things which divide us are less than the human needs and goals which unite us?  Can we make time to be kind… perhaps stop and have a laugh with someone we might otherwise have ignored? 

Or, can we simply volunteer?

If you think that’s pie in the sky, then choose a few paragraphs below and allow me to introduce you to a selection of the inspiring volunteers I found on the Last Mile route to Greenwich Park. 


Grant Speed is husband to Jo and father to Jake (6) and Alex (3).  Born in Arbroath and living in Greenloaning, near Dunblane, he is a Group Financial Controller for a hotel company, the Jurys Inn.  He used his holiday leave to come to London for the Games, and bunked down with relatives.

Grant wanted to be a volunteer because he reached a point in his life where he realised he was not likely to be an Olympian in the truest sense.  But, loving sport, and wanting to get involved behind the scenes, he knew that it doesn’t get any bigger than an Olympics in your home country.  He also felt, being Scottish, that it was important the British Games were well and truly represented.

Starting out Grant kept his expectations in check.  He accepted the days would be long, and that he might be miles away from stadium, standing in the rain… but he also knew that “these things are what you make them”… and that “getting involved is the only way to make things happen”.

That open, ‘can do’ spirit, is typical of London Games Makers, so I’m pleased to share his happy stories:  “I wandered into the Greenwich Tavern one night to find the GB gold medal showjumping team with medals and full pints. What a great bunch of people” he said, “we even managed to get ourselves on to the BBC live broadcast from the Tavern with Clare Balding.  It was an awesome night!!!” 

The fun continued: Grant wore sympathetic sideburns to see “Wiggo win gold”, and delighted in the joy he observed in a crowd of Japanese spectators standing in the rain to watch the Women’s Marathon.  In his travels he reports to meeting “princesses, athletes and former soap stars” but, to Grant, the volunteers were the “greatest bunch of people”.   Finally, he added, “sneaking into the Greenwich Arena to watch competition while I ate lunch on a couple of occasions, beats any lunchtime, anywhere!”  And I’m sure there’s not a soul who would begrudge our volunteers such a moment of reward. 

Graham Charlesworth lives in Bridgend, South Wales, and works for an outsourcing company as an Operations Trainer.  He explains: “I sent my application in to be a volunteer back in October 2010. I was sitting at home with friends who were thinking of doing it, so I jumped on the bandwagon.  I didn’t really think about what would be involved but knew with the Olympics in London I would be a fool not to want to be involved in some capacity. As the selection process went on, I got more and more excited. I was given the role of Last Mile Operations (I really didn't know what it meant at the time) and have thoroughly enjoyed taking the experience for what it is. I didn't come in to this expecting to make lifelong friends but wanted to take as much out of it as possible.  But I have to say, I have met some fantastic people who I will definitely be keeping in touch with.”

Graham appreciates that, in order to have the Olympic experience, he has been “lucky enough to have a very supportive wife, family and work colleagues.”  He took twelve days off work “at a point where there really is no spare resource… but my manager was aware of the opportunity I’d been given”.   In order to honour his volunteering commitment, Graham needed to move down from Wales to stay with family on the outskirts of London, and most impressive is that this involved leaving behind his loving wife with their five year old daughter, Evie, and their twelve week old son, Archie! 

“To say I am immensely proud of what I have been involved in, is understatement.”  Graham’s had lots of text messages of support from friends and family but admits to getting slightly emotional after reading a text from his dad on the golden Saturday night after Team GB won all the medals.  The message read: “Proud to be British today, but more proud of you for volunteering x.”  Graham concluded our discussion with: “I can't wait to get home and bore people with all the stories - over and over again!!!”  And no doubt he’ll generously thank his patient wife and boss for their contribution!

Donna Beckford-Smith lives in Luton, Bedfordshire.  As this was too far to travel to Greenwich for each shift, she told me “I am blessed to be able to stay at a colleague’s home in Chorleywood, which is only 2 hours from Greenwich”.  Staggered by her commitment and unfailing smile, Donna explained:

“I always wanted to be an athlete at the Olympics, but volunteering is the next best thing. To be involved in the atmosphere and to say I was there is unbelievable.  In my every day life I work as a Blood Transfusion Nurse Specialist, at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.  I have enjoyed my volunteering experience, no words can describe how amazing it has been - meeting so many wonderful people has been breathtaking.”

Donna is a woman well accustomed to a profession of service, and first hand I greatly appreciated the good cheer and quiet professionalism she brought to the Last Mile Team!

Aurélien Urbanek (27) is a French national who grew up in Paris.  Pictured here with myself and Eva Paterson, another dedicated volunteer from Scotland, when Aurélien isn’t working on the Last Mile at Greenwich Park he works in Marseille as a Civil Engineer.  

When asked why he got involved in the Games, Aurélien showed why the volunteer spirit we’d like to bottle is so precious:  “Good question - especially when we all know that Paris, my favourite city, was in competition for hosting the 2012 Olympic Games!  But still, I really wanted to be a part of it and to serve as a volunteer.  I believe that London 2012 does not belong exclusively to the UK but to the entire world and the 205 countries represented during the Games. It is a worldwide event and it doesn't matter where you're from as long as you want to make the Games the best experience for everyone.  More personally, I wanted to become a volunteer because I realised, that at 27, I wasn’t doing very much for others. I think I was a little bit too selfish during the last few years and that I wasn't generous enough.”

When asked about the nature of his Games experience, this self-effacing and impressive young man went on to say:  “The experience has been great. When I applied to become a volunteer, I didn't imagine that the atmosphere would be so intense. People are just amazing. The public is showing a great sympathy toward the volunteers and especially with the Last Mile team members. But above all, it's been such a pleasure to work with the other volunteers. I've discovered so many different people, so many different cultures and experiences. I was a little bit surprised when I found that many volunteers are not coming from London… but from all over the UK and even from abroad. I have learned a lot during the Games and I will miss all the volunteers with whom I have worked.  But my next step is to go back to France and share my incredible adventure with my family.  I'm also thinking about volunteering for Rio de Janeiro in 2016... so I better start learning Portuguese before the interviews start!"

 Rhian Jones lives and works in Cardiff, Wales.  She is a solicitor with her own legal practice. This summer she took two weeks annual leave from work, and embarked upon her first real experience of volunteering:

"I clearly remember when London was awarded the Olympics back in 2005, and I wanted to try and be in London to see the greatest show on earth. I've always had a passion for sport, and always spend many hours watching wall to wall coverage of the Olympics. When I heard they were looking for volunteers to help, I thought this would provide an excellent opportunity to be in London to experience all the buzz and excitement. I instantly sent in an application and crossed my fingers that it would be successful!”

“I've spent my time at London 2012 based at Greenwich Park, and I couldn't have wished for a better venue. It is simply a breathtaking venue, with the views across the park towards the city providing (in my opinion) some of the most iconic images of the Games. I was part of the Last Mile team, and it was great to be part of such an energetic team which interacted extensively with the public. It was impossible not to get drawn in by the excitement of the spectators as they came in and out of the venue. I loved hearing about their day, and seeing the children so excited about attending the Games and supporting team GB. Whilst some of the shifts were long, I was lucky enough to see some of the sporting action. Being in the arena as team GB won the Dressage Gold was spine tingling… watching the Show Jumping was just so tense… and catching the GB Eventing Team win Silver, just amazing.”

“Clearly I couldn’t commute from Wales, but the cost of hotels in London during the Olympics was high if added up over a couple of weeks. So through I stayed at Blackheath Rugby Club.  It was fantastic, and even better was that the revenue raised is to be put back into the running of the rugby club; thus benefitting the local community and creating a lasting legacy.  The camp site was excellent, and packed with Games Makers. There was a cafe providing breakfast and hot meals throughout the day, and a fabulous bar where we could watch the Olympics and meet fellow campers. This bar had a wonderful atmosphere, and when GB won a medal the roof was raised! The campsite was only fifteen minutes by bus from Greenwich Park which was another bonus, especially as some people were commuting for several hours each day.

I can honestly say that I loved every minute of my volunteering experience at London 2012.  We were a motley bunch but I've made some fantastic friends… had a photo with a gold medal (and its owner)… and been in London at probably the best time. The Olympics in my home country is a once in a lifetime experience, and one that I didn't want to miss, and in years to come I can look at my photos and souvenirs and remember that "I was there".”

Stephen Clarke lives in Blackheath, near the Greenwich Park Last Mile operation.  He is a Chartered Surveyor, running his own company based in Dartford:

 “The company was started by my father in 1982 so we are celebrating our thirtieth anniversary in this most special of years. I work with solely residential property and I still remember exactly which house I was in when the decision was made to give the Games to London in 2005.  I surprised myself with how much this seemed to mean to me (and the strangers I celebrated with), and decided there and then to try and get involved. At the time I was a callow 42 year old with a successful company, and I naively thought I’d be able to easily afford to take two weeks off to volunteer.  As it happens... business took a significant downward turn in 2008 and though the company kept going, my Dad retired, and my wife went up to the city to work rather then managing my office. 

 Nevertheless I kept my promise to myself and applied to be a Games Maker as soon as it was possible. I chose Greenwich because I love it and know the area well.  I have no sporting qualifications really (except as a scuba diver), so I knew I had to be prepared to do anything and that seemed just fine. What I was looking forward to was the team spirit and I have not been one bit disappointed in that regard.  I work on my own an awful lot and so miss the camaraderie (if not the politics) of having workmates.

Again it is the generosity and lack of ego which shines from Stephen’s next comment:  “Each shift I do on the Olympics costs me a survey which is about £350.  But hey ho! It’s summer. And I probably would not have managed to book a job on every single day anyway!  I don't regret it.  The volunteers are great; and some of the paid staff too.  But the public has really made it for me.  We are mirrors of each others moods and the mood was always good.  When I look back on my whole life I am sure that this will be one of the most worthwhile things that I have done.”

‘On post’ I watched Steve repeatedly work his magic with the public, with a delightful combination of easy hospitality and charm, so though I was supremely jealous to have missed it myself, I was happy to hear him report he gained one particular reward from his volunteering: “I would even have done it all just for the ticket to the opening ceremony dress rehearsal. That experience will stick with me for ever. One of the greatest live shows ever and only performed three times. Never to be repeated.”

David Lungley (65) lives in Exmoor, Somerset.  However during the Games he stayed with his daughter, in Haringay, North London.  A retired Chemistry Teacher and Sports Coach, David volunteered for multiple reasons:

“Firstly, I knew that, being retired, I would have the time to help.  Secondly, I believe everyone should do charitable things when they can. Thirdly, I hate the effect the pursuit of money has on Sports like Football and Indian Premier League Cricket… because for me that's not ‘sport’.  By contrast I love the Olympic Games, where people compete in the more traditional way for the glory.  And fourthly, I believe very strongly in the benefits to the world of all the countries competing in friendly rivalry, with mutual tolerance and respect, rather than fighting foolishly over unimportant differences.”

David has not been disappointed.  He has been “thrilled with the sporting atmosphere which has emerged in everyone, so refreshingly unmaterialistic…” and with his experience of the ethnic diversity of London.  His experience, he says, has been “absolutely brilliant”, and again he reminds us of the positive energy which emanates from people when they are tuned in to the notion of ‘giving something back’.   

Originally from Manchester, Derek Lucas, 67, lives in Congleton Cheshire.  He’s been married to Lorna for 45 years and has 2 daughters, Rachael & Rebecca; both married with children.  Derek took retirement in 2000 from his position as Agricultural Manager with a major UK bank. He has also lectured in related banking topics for over 35 years.

Involved over many years in running clubs and athletics, in 2002 Derek volunteered to work at the Manchester Commonwealth Games. As a driver, he acted as a chaperone for athletes who were randomly chosen to take a drug test. So when London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games he knew immediately he wanted to take part in what he described as a “momentous event”.  Though initially disappointed not to be placed in a role closer to the athletes, Derek’s story of relocation and throwing himself fully into the spirit of the Games is typical of so many resourceful volunteers, that you could almost say he experienced The Real Olympic Park. 

Living over 200 miles from London, finding accommodation quickly became a priority for Derek.  Due again to cost, hotels were out of the question.  Nor did he know anybody in the area who could offer a spare room.  Yet Derek came across Ninja Camping who were arranging with sports clubs across London to use their facilities for camping.  Like Rhian, he arranged to camp on Rugby Club grounds, this time at Eltham, where, for a mere £10 a night, he had 24/7 hot showers, meals, bar, and access to a bus which took him directly to Greenwich in thirty-five minutes.  Of the 250 tents at this site, Derek reports about a third were volunteers, the rest Olympic tourists.  And cleverly the volunteers were placed all together on a quiet part of the field and bonded accordingly.  

Derek describes his experience thus: “My first shift was 7.30am on Saturday 28th July and I was designated to meet the ferries from central London near the Cutty Sark.  Initially I was quiet and reserved (what do you expect from a retired Bank Manager) but after a short while decided that I had to throw myself into the role.  I became determined that nobody went past me without acknowledging me, and all children, up to the age of 90+, had to high-five my big pink foam finger. As time went on the comments became louder, but more challenging to try and raise a smile.  Interactions like “welcome to the ferret and elephant racing” sometimes did the trick.  In addition he committed himself to the “Smile Mile”, where he encouraged everyone to smile as they where shepherded into the venue. The best part Derek said “was that the spectators had come along to enjoy themselves; and British reserve became a thing of the past.”  

 He reports “the shifts were long, tiring, and talking, shouting and singing for four hours can be wearing”.  But confirming we tend to get out of things exactly what we put in, he added “but the comments, handshakes and hugs we received made the sore throats and sore feet worthwhile, and meeting so many people from all over the world was the highlight.  It was a brilliant sixteen days which will live in the memory.  I will be boring my family and friends for weeks with my tales and, like a fisherman’s stories, they will grow and grow.” 

So where does the volunteer who went home with an officially presented certificate in his bag declaring “The Most Energetic Last Miler” go from here?  His reply: “The Commonwealth Games, Glasgow 2014.  If they want volunteers I am their man!”  And all evidence shows they’d be lucky to have him!

JoAnne Hughes (known as Jo) was born in Hong Kong.  Based for over 30 years in the UK, her home town is Guildford, Surrey.  She works for a networking systems company as a communications manager: “I help senior people in my company communicate in a way that inspires people and get the point across in a clear and succinct way”.  When asked why she volunteered for the Olympics, she explains:

“I've been volunteering to support equestrian sport for many years, at local riding club events as well as national events run by the British Horse Society and Association of British Riding Clubs. When London 2012 called out for volunteers, I didn't hesitate. I just wanted to be there to do my bit to make London 2012 successful, and to soak up the atmosphere. I'm a keen horse rider and put Greenwich as my top choice when I filled in my LOCOG application form. From the first day, seeing all the spectators at Greenwich, I knew it was going to be great fun. Everyone was in a good mood (even when the torrential rains came) and I just loved interacting with people from all around the world. Everywhere I went in my Games Maker Uniform people spoke to me, wanting to know where I was working, what I was doing. But the biggest highlight for me, were my fellow Games Makers. They were all amazing, wonderful people.

I wish the Games could go on - I really don't want the experience to end!”


And right there, I guess Jo says it all.  Despite our Last Mile blisters and rolling Olympic hangovers, we’re sad it’s over.  We’re feeling a lull.  But let’s harness that wonderful spirit, and trust our city and community can grow from strength to strength.  It simply begins with a smile…