The athletes are the ones who grab all the applause and the headlines, but the success of every Olympic Games is down to the host country’s volunteers.
They are the unsung heroes, working long hours, travelling from far and wide to be at their stations on time and do it for their love of the Games and for a sense of duty to the country they represent and the city they are helping showcase to the world.
With the opening ceremony for the 2016 Games a week away, I don’t get the sense that the spectacular sprawling city of Rio, has come out to play – yet. Once you get off the beaten track the locals seem largely oblivious to the fact the Olympics are soon to explode into action.
Rio also promised, and Rio will deliver. And, at the heart of that delivery will be the conviction and the commitment of the tens of thousands of volunteers.
But, their job will be made doubly difficult because of the number of English-speaking visitors over the Games period. Portuguese is the spoken tongue here and even in so-called ‘up-market’ areas and boutique shops and malls, it’s difficult being understood in English.
Yet, the volunteers are already making their presence felt, and you feel the effort they are putting into their jobs simply to try to please Johnny English, the visitor who comes into a foreign country and expects the locals to understand what he is saying. It’s amazing though how far a smile, an effort at saying ‘por favor’ or ‘obrigado’ and a thumbs up will get you.
However, when a misunderstanding is a result of two volunteers speaking Portuguese, and you being the ‘victim’, then one knows that there will be more than a few flared tempers and frustration when the Games really get going and Rio becomes a seething mass of people and vehicles on crowded streets and highways.
Three of us were on a bus on Thursday, transported from the Main Press Centre and to dropped off at the Hilton Hotel, 11 minutes away – according to the schedule. We had asked the volunteer in charge which bus would get us to the Hilton; a chip and a putt away from the mall.
‘How long to walk there?’ we asked. ’Twenty, thirty minutes,’ the volunteer replied, with a smile. ‘How long before this bus leaves?’ ‘Ten minutes,’ she said. The maths was done quickly: Bus leaves in 10 minutes, it takes 11 minutes to get to the Hilton. We’ll be there in 21 minutes. ’We’ll take the bus, obrigado.’
The driver didn’t look a happy soul the moment we climbed on board. He seemed to be fighting with the gears, a big man with big forearms and he made it clear to that gearstick early on who the boss was. Still, the request, we believed, was that he’d get us to the Hilton Hotel stop before heading back on his loop back to the Main Press Centre.
We seem to have ‘done some driving’ and some 15 minutes later we saw the Hilton Hotel. There it was, at 10 o’clock, heading towards it. Suddenly, out of traffic like 16 Formula One cars jockeying for position into the first corner of a race, another media bus cut in front, to also turn left. Our driver transformed into Lewis Hamilton. Nico Rosberg might have taken the line but we don’t like him, even if he was a teammate. We stayed inches behind, then, green for ‘go, go, go!’ A grating of the gears and the big main and the big bus carrying his three passengers roared into life. Suddenly, the Hilton Hotel was at 2 o’clock … and we appeared to be going away from the destination as ‘Rosberg’ took the fork right as ‘Lewis’ went left.
Ten minutes later ‘Hamilton’ had calmed down, a little, but now we were going through unfamiliar territory. Through a downtrodden neighbourhood, a big noisy bus driving through streets where young kids kicked a soccer ball on sandy patches, while others were playing with small kites on a windy, chilly afternoon.
Then, the driver stopped outside a hotel, not just any hotel, but the Quality Hotel. Maybe Quality, but not quite the Hilton.
He opened the doors and pointed at us, as in ‘get off, this is your stop’.
‘Take us back to the MPC, por favor,’ a colleague asked. The big fella must have just vaguely understood the word ‘MPC’ and a foreign attempt at ‘por favor’. The doors slammed shut and the gear stick was thrust into first. And then second, and third, and it almost went on with the arm and through the big windscreen.
Another 15 minutes and we recognised the cones funnelling back into the MPC and its bus parking bays. ‘Ground hog day,’ said a colleague. ‘When you hear the bell this is the final lap,’ I thought, but dared not even whisper.
‘Lewis’ was out the now opened doors before the sound of the engine being switched off had died down. He marched straight to a bemused bunch of volunteers standing at Bay No10 and pointed angrily at us. He then stormed off and I’m guessing his hand action suggested something along the lines of, ‘I quit’.
‘Can you please tell us what bus will take us to the Hilton Hotel,’ I asked the smiling lady volunteer. ‘That one,’ she pointed to the bus we’d just come off, before looking puzzled. There was no driver. ’You were here earlier, no?’