BEIJING, CHINA—“Welcome to Beijing” has become a familiar phrase this week, heard all over China during the celebration of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. It is joyfully chanted by Chinese people in person, and on the airwaves in speech and in song. “Beijing huang yin nin,” “Beijing welcomes you.”
On the streets of Beijing, people old and young alike, whose only English-speaking ability is that welcoming sentence, are only too happy to say it to every foreigner they meet. “Everybody wants to be a part of it [the Games],” gleefully announced volunteer “James Brown.” The phrase, however, is probably most often repeated by the half-million Olympic Games volunteers, of whom Brown is one. (He requested that I not use his real name due to what he referred to as the sensitive nature of his job)
As you arrive in Beijing by air, train or bus, you will likely be greeted by a group of smiling, pretty, youthful college-age individuals who are helpful beyond belief. Not only do they answer questions and provide general information, but they also take major responsibilities to ensure that the Games are run smoothly. In their blue-and-white shirts, they are referred to as Games-times or in-Game volunteers.
The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad announced in April 2007 that “more than 450,000 people have registered to become Games-time volunteers for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games as of April 8. A total of 100,000 Games-time volunteers will be needed for the Beijing Olympic Games and Paralympics. Another 400,000 city volunteers will provide information, translation, first-aid and other services at urban service stations around the competition venues and key areas of Beijing.”
A total of 100,000 Games-time volunteers are needed for the Beijing Olympic Games and Paralympics. Another 400,000 city volunteers provide information, translation, first-aid and other services at urban service stations around the competition venues and key areas of Beijing.
The majority of Games-time volunteers are college students from all over China, many from Beijing. There are also volunteers from other countries—such as Cuba, Russia, the United States, and Brazil. Applicants needed to demonstrate English language proficiency.
A large—and visible—number of the city volunteers appear to be senior citizens, and they can be seen in their red and white shirts from sunrise to sunset sitting on small stools in groups of two or three, one group on every block.
Brown speaks English as flawlessly as an anchorman. He works in one of the stadiums in a position that puts him in close proximity to athletes. In spring of 2007, as a sophomore, Brown applied to be a volunteer at the recruitment meeting held by his university—every major university in China held a similar meeting.
At the interview, Brown specifically requested his assigned position because, he explained, he wanted “to be close to the athletes.” He attended a one-week training in the summer and bi-monthly meetings up to the opening of the Games, he was required to attend lectures on various subjects such as volunteerism, Olympics history, and theoretical issues specific to his assignment. In the weeks prior to the opening of the Olympics, Brown was also required to attend sporting events to further test his application of the skills he learned.
“As a volunteer, I’m not too excited now,” said Brown. “It’s basically still work, and we’ve been doing this for a whole year. The training was long, and it interrupted a lot of personal things.” However, he quickly added that his enthusiasm for the Games and his pride for his country have not diminished.
“From the beginning, you could tell that it’s about China—not propaganda. My friends cheered from the deepest part of their hearts, and these are guys who are not inspired so easily.”
Brown works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. “The athletes,” he said, “are pretty friendly and cooperative—most of them. Most speak good English. If can’t communicate, I can call Language Services volunteers if help is needed. The event is pretty well-organized, and the audience is good. Although I can’t see the games, I can hear the cheers. The volunteer cheerleaders are amazing—they studied special slogans which they say to cheer the audience.”
Of the opening ceremony, which Brown watched on television with his friends, he said, “As a Chinese, I really got very excited. It was beyond my expectations. As I watched with my friends, we tried to guess what would happen next, but we couldn’t. It was really beyond our imaginations. From the beginning, you could tell that it’s about China—not propaganda. My friends cheered from the deepest part of their hearts, and these are guys who are not inspired so easily.”
“It’s more than a sporting event,” continued Brown. “It’s a party for the world and China is the host. We want the world to see what China is like now. It’s so hard to just live by yourself, not knowing about other countries, and that can cause a lot of conflict. This kind of event gives you the opportunity to know China.”
Two days before the opening of the Games, a neurologist from Zhejiang province told me, “My wish is that the Games are safe and successful. It would be nice if China wins,” he chuckled, “but more important is that the Games are safe, and that everyone who is participating enjoys them.”
Jennifer Holder contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.