Smiling Volunteers Win Another Olympic Gold for Beijing

As China's 600-strong Olympic team fight for medals on the home soil, a separate team nearly 3,000 times its size are trying to snatch another gold for their country -- with friendly smiles.

Of the host city's 1.7 million volunteers, about 100,000 are working at the Games sites -- mainly the competition venues and the Olympic villages -- or on the bus fleet shuttling between these sites.

The host city actually looks younger with these smiling young men and women, mostly in their early 20s and all wearing blue "Beijing 2008" T-shirts.

"Visitors to the Olympics can be forgiven for thinking that China is a land of unnatural youthfulness where nobody is older than 30," said New York Times reporter Charles McGrath.

Close as they are to the Games, few of these volunteers can sit back and enjoy the competition. Even the lucky ones working at the competition venues may not witness all the historic moments.

Pan Xingyu, 21, works at the National Aquatics Center, or the Water Cube, but has never caught a glimpse of her idol Michael Phelps. "He always competes in the morning but I always work afternoon or night shifts."

She also missed the excitement of the diving competitions -- in which China has won all the four golds offered so far, because she was either on duty at the entrance or maintaining order at the spectators' stand.

"I had a peep or two when the audience roared in excitement. But it's better to watch TV later on," she said.

At the end of a noisy, tiring day, Pan and her colleagues are always eager to get back for some rest, but their team leaders sometimes call them together to play games, hoping to help them relax and enhance cohesion of the group.

An engineering major at the prestigious Tsinghua University, Pan admitted her excitement at the job is subsiding. "It is very tiring and stressful. Sometimes you need to deal with tough issues and people would complain if you're not doing well enough," said the soft-spoken junior student. "But when I graduate from school, I guess I won't be afraid of any tough job (with this experience)."

For Pan and her peers, some of whom stand for several hours in the scorching sun to point the way for the Olympic visitors, all their hard work pays off when they are given a heartfelt "thank you" and compliments in return.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who attended the Beijing Olympics opening on Aug. 8, said he was "especially moved" by the volunteers because of their enthusiasm and good manners. "Chinese young people have dreams...They deserve our expectation and admiration," he said in an interview earlier this week.

A senior official with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also paid tribute to the Beijing Games' volunteers at a press conference on Wednesday. "All the volunteers are dedicated... we have to say they are doing a fantastic job," said IOC's Olympic Games executive director Gilbert Felli.

These volunteers, many of whom are trained to be engineers, journalists or doctors, are doing a wide variety of temporary jobs created by the Games: running errands and distributing games results, conducting security checks, driving golf carts, housekeeping at athletes and media villages, or simply standing there and greeting everyone.

Frankly speaking, not everyone speaks good English and many, particularly the freshman students, lack the adequate problem solving skills their jobs demand. But they are certainly doing their best to help, and are hoping this hard-won opportunity will help prove their capability and enrich their experience, which might be a positive element in their future employment.

Xu Zhou, 19, has one of the "boring" jobs that is totally irrelevant to what she is trained to be -- a communication engineer.

She travels at least 20 times a day on a media bus commuting between the Main Press Center and the North Star Media Village, a 20-minute ride, to provide language assistance for foreign reporters aboard and answer their questions.

Most of the days, Xu, as well as 2,000 other volunteers who work for the media bus fleet, can only catch a glimpse of the ongoing competitions on TV during their breaks. But Monday was a red-letter day for the bespectacled sophomore from Beijing Communications University: she had a day off and she got a ticket to the Olympic Green Tennis Center through a lucky draw on campus.

To fully exploit the hard-won chance, she arrived at 5 a.m. and didn't leave until midnight, watching as many games as possible as the ticket was valid for all 65 matches played in the day.

"It was exciting to see Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play," said Xu, adding that she was happy to be among a home crowd that cheered Lu Yen-hsun from Chinese Taipei on to a hard victory against British Andy Murray.

Starting her service on July 25, Xu said she would stick to her position until the assignment is over by August 25. "My job here might be a trivial detail in the running of the whole Games, but details matter in the Games' final success," she said.

Besides the 100,000 volunteers directly serving the Olympians and journalists, the other 1.6-million-strong volunteers in the Chinese capital have seldom come under the spotlight.

Among them are pensioners -- the oldest one already 103 years old -- that patrol streets and communities, students that answer tourists' questions at roadside information kiosks, skilled taxi drivers who have been handpicked to access the locked Olympic area in northern Beijing, and chefs selected from renowned Beijing hotels to help cook the Olympic dishes.

But a set of snapshots, showing a young female volunteer holding a foreigner, who fainted shortly in the street probably for a slight sunstroke, in her arms and feeding him water, spread quickly in China's vast Internet community, and stirred up a great sensation.

"You look so beautiful when you extend your helping hands. You are the embodiment of the traditional virtues of the Chinese -- hospitable and caring," read an online comment seen on

At 103, Beijing resident Fu Yiquan still patrols the street near the Temple of Heaven in downtown Beijing as a "security volunteer," a job he has been doing for 30 years.

The perseverance of Fu and tens of thousands of other pensioners in Beijing impressed David Tool, a former colonel of the US Army who now teaches at a Beijing university and hunts awkward translations in his spare time.

"These pensioners are doing a great job. The Beijing Games are a grand occasion. I, too, want to share the excitement," said Tool.

During the Games, he is serving as a volunteer at an information kiosk close to the Sanlitun bar street, one of the areas most frequented by foreigners in eastern Beijing.

"No matter who wins the most medals at the Games, one thing is clear -- these volunteers will win the hearts and minds of visitors to Beijing," Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said on the eve of the Beijing Games.

(Xinhua News Agency August 15, 2008)

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