Expert Opinion

Rio Olympics and the power of the volunteer

With the Rio Olympics now being just around the corner, Dr James Woodall from Leeds Beckett’s Centre for Health Promotion Research reflects on his team’s research into the experience of volunteers at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and makes recommendations for the Rio organisers on how to maximise the potential of their event volunteers.

The Rio Olympics is a sporting bonanza, where the world’s greatest athletes gather to compete for glory and the all-important gold medal.  However, how many of us think about the logistics and planning behind a mega-sporting event like this?  Volunteers have become a recognised part of staging mega-sporting events, like the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.  Who could forget during the London 2012 Games, the volunteers, known as the ‘Games Makers’, whose hard work and dedication were instrumental in that exhilarating summer of sport.  There is no doubt that there will be a large volunteer contingent at the Rio Olympics too supporting the organisation of the Games.  There has been a growing interest in these volunteers and an expanding research base exploring individuals’ motives for taking on such roles and the effects of being a mega-sporting event volunteer.

The experiences of volunteers at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games were recently examined by staff in the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Beckett University, highlighting the potential for large-scale events to boost local pride and change negative perceptions.  As part of our study we spoke to those who volunteered at the Games; those who applied to volunteer but were unsuccessful with their application; and we reviewed the existing literature on mega-sports volunteers.

The research showed that volunteers at mega-sporting events tend to be motivated by an interest in the sport or a desire to contribute to the event, more so than factors such as career progression.  For many people it was the chance to participate in a unique and prestigious event that motivated them to take part.  Our research showed that the benefits of volunteering at mega-sporting events were many – volunteers told us about how taking part in the Glasgow Games had been a positive experience and led to a range of benefits including growth of social networks, including meeting people from different social and cultural backgrounds; increased confidence, greater awareness of other volunteering opportunities, and enhanced wellbeing through taking part in a collective event; and the development of new skills.  The sense of pride and feeling part of a collective experience was felt not only by the volunteers working at the event but also those who were unsuccessful with their application, who reported feeling part of the friendly atmosphere generated by hosting the Games.

Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games event

So, what are the lessons from Glasgow that can be applied to Rio?  Well, firstly this needs to be done with caution given the very different social and cultural aspects of the two cities.  That said, our research showed that having a broad volunteer base in terms of skills, backgrounds, cultures, experiences and ages is important.  Our research also suggests elements that can contribute to maximising health and social impacts for the volunteers and for wider communities with the key messages being:

  • Invest in the volunteer base – and make it fun!
  • Use and value the local knowledge of volunteers as an asset
  • Be inclusive in recruitment and open up opportunities for volunteering after the Games have finished
  • Create a social context where people can come together and where volunteers can contribute to building community cohesion

We will all be looking forward to watching Usain Bolt and the other superstars that will create history at the Rio Games, but without the hard work and dedication of volunteers there is little chance of a successful Olympic games.  Our research based on volunteers at the Glasgow Commonwealth games shows the benefits of volunteering at such events and demonstrates the individual and wider benefits of their contribution.

You can view the team's full report on the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games here.