Volunteers at Tokyo Olympics: witnessing a more united world

Curtain came down on the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics on Sunday after over 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries and regions displayed their sportsmanship.

Curtain came down on the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics on Sunday after over 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries and regions displayed their sportsmanship, which has been under the spotlight during the 16-day Games.

However, the contribution from a large group of unsung heroes – over 70,000 volunteers, coming from different nations and regions but united by love for the Olympics – should never be overlooked as they are doing their best to ensure the success of the Games. And among them, many are from China – some are overseas students and some are working in Japan.

Volunteers, often called the "lifeblood" of the Olympics, with the role of crucial facilitators for exchanges and communication, contribute their shares to mutual understanding and solidarity of all human beings, who are brought together and connected by the world's largest sporting event.


Li Chen, a Chinese volunteer in press service at the basketball venue, left his hometown in northeastern China to seek higher education in Japan five years ago. He said part of the reason he came to study in Japan was because of Tokyo Olympics.

"I was in the elementary school when Beijing Olympics were hosted in 2008. At that time an idea came to my mind that I should participate in such a huge and exciting event for myself in some way, then I heard the news Tokyo would be hosting 2020 Olympics before I went to college," Li recalled.

Then Li made the decision to come to Japan. "We were so thrilled to watch on TV the opening ceremony and flame lighting at the Beijing Games, which took place at home. That made me start the idea of joining and experiencing the Olympics in real life and Tokyo 2020 gave me that chance."

With one and a half years' language training and living for the past five years, Li, a major in English literature, can speak Mandarin, English, and Japanese. Although translation is not his main responsibility, being trilingual gives him an edge in helping out the delegations and international journalists.

What Li does at the venue is miscellaneous, toilsome and sometimes seems trivial: guiding the press to find their work area, delivering handouts to journalists, maintaining order inside the venue, helping people book a taxi, coordinating when conflict occurs... But Li takes pride in fulfilling his duty and feels needed, especially when he can help solve problems.

"It is the media from different countries that let the Olympics and the precious moments in the stadium known to people across the world. And I can feel my value in providing help to the press, which facilitates smooth operation of the whole event," Li said.

For 27-year-old Qiu Tian who is seeking a doctoral degree in Japan, volunteering has allowed him to reach and translate for his idols. Qiu is one of the lucky members relocated to the language service team after his original post to guide the audience was canceled because almost all competitions were conducted without spectators due to the ongoing pandemic.

"I feel so lucky that I was able to continue volunteering for the Olympics because many volunteers are still waiting for new assignments as the Games now take place without an audience," Qiu noted.

Volunteers are asked to tackle logistics themselves and are given 1,000 yen transport subsidy per day. But for Qiu, who lives in Chiba and works at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, the subsidy can barely cover the fare.

"We use love and enthusiasm to fuel ourselves, so we won't be very tired or exhausted," Qiu chuckled. "Sometimes we even spontaneously work longer than required because we don't want to miss precious moments, like the final competitions and awarding ceremonies."

"We don't ask for anything, because we are volunteers. It is our love for this job that brought us here," Qiu said.


The COVID-19 pandemic cast a shadow on the Tokyo Olympics, bringing a lot of uncertainty in terms of the further spread of the virus and the safety of everyone. To cope with the urgent situation, Japanese authorities promised to create a bubble system to separate the Olympics participants from the general public in Tokyo.

Despite a surge of new daily infections, the delayed Games were eventually opened unprecedentedly under a state of emergency in Tokyo. But still, even with the bubble, the pandemic poses grave challenges to athletes, delegations, media, and volunteers as well.

All volunteers are requested to do screening tests at varying frequencies according to their proximity to athletes. Qiu, working as an interpreter in mixed zone, needs to get a PCR test every four days, while in general volunteers without contact with athletes are tested once a week. And before the Olympics started, volunteers had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

In the mixed zone, Qiu stands between reporters and athletes, who should keep a distance of at least two meters. Volunteers help place voice recorders in a tray and put them before athletes, and Qiu translates in between. He said at the beginning they even wore a face shield to protect athletes and themselves, but with the shield and masks underneath, their voice can hardly be heard. "So we removed the shield and wear masks correctly."

Doing their jobs and keeping the bubble safe at the same time is no easy task. Qiu's teammate, 22-year-old Cao Zhongyuan, said she wore two masks at first to ensure the safety and health of all personnel involved fully, but sometimes she cannot be clearly heard. So she decides to wear one mask and try to keep social distancing as much as possible while doing her work.

"At times we need to shout a little bit to make ourselves heard to athletes and reporters, because the stereo in the stadium is loud and we all wear masks," said Qiu.

"If there were no pandemic, we might have asked athletes for a signature when we happened to run into them, but now we cannot meet them at all," Qiu noted, "We fully understand the anti-epidemic measures and all of us strictly follow the regulations."

But to them, even the pandemic situation has caused extra difficulties, they never whine or complain. "We monitor our temperatures before check-in every day, constantly sanitize our hands, practice social distancing, and doing whatever we can to prevent any infections around us," Li said.


The exchange of pin badges has been a unique Olympic tradition. For volunteers, collecting pins is not only a part of the pleasure of volunteering, but also acts as a catalyst for fostering friendship and understanding.

25-year-old Wang Kang, wearing a mask on which printed a Chinese national flag, works in the archery stadium. So far he has garnered more than 100 pin badges, making himself a true "badge collector."

Wang said every time he received a new badge, he will share the picture in the volunteers' group chat room and many would ask him where to get it. "Each delegation has pin badges with its unique design," he said, "some combine the national flag and Olympic rings, and some put in special elements that feature their cultural personality."

Of all the badges he collected, a Chinese fan-shaped pin and a pin with porcelain elements gifted by the Chinese national team are his favorite. "These badges of our national team are so exquisite and distinctive, in particular the fan-shaped ones. Many foreign athletes want to own one," Wang added.

Trading pins is in fact a process of enhancing communication and promoting friendship, Qiu said. "When we do translation for media outlets from all over the world, they sometimes give pins to us as presents to express their gratitude, which is a great encouragement for us," he said while showing several badges he got. "This was from Japan Television, this was from NHK and this from a Brazilian reporter," he counted carefully.

"I may be too shy to ask them for pins, but it lights my day up if I receive pin badges as a gift," Qiu said frankly. "We and volunteers from other countries exchange pins and share where to get a few pretty but uncommon pins," he added. "This is so much fun and gives us a moment to unwind after busy work."

The 27-year-old said he was extremely nervous when he interpreted for the table tennis stars at the Olympics for the first time, and his hands kept shaking when taking notes. "We will prepare in advance if given interview questions. I serve as a bridge between athletes and the media, so it's my duty to deliver the athlete's message to the world accurately."

Although there was almost no contact between Qiu and athletes, he still tries to cheer them up when athletes pass by the mixed zone. "Sometimes athletes can hear me, they will give me a smile back or a nod, and that is huge motivation for me."

"We are reaching to every corner of the Games and then connect all people together to our big Olympic family," Wang explained.

To Li, volunteering at the Games gave him the chance to experience the Olympic spirit's irresistible charm. More importantly, he realized how united all humans can be when linked by shared goals and common feelings.

"We see athletes compete on the field, but not being antagonistic; we see people coming from different backgrounds comprehend each other better through their common aim for 'faster, higher, stronger – and together,'" Li said.

Tokyo 2020 will soon be wrapped up, but the legacy left by those lovely volunteers will last forever, which has attested to solidarity and harmony of all mankind, regardless of race, color, age or gender.

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