The ‘People Power’ of the China Olympics

BEIJING — Four nights ago at around 10 p.m., me and my viewing partner during these games — my roommate Jasmin — were lost. We exited the Olympic Green Tennis Center, hopped inside Bus No. 7 and, as we had done the day before, expected to be dropped at a bus stop close to our apartment home.

But, no, the bus stopped midway, somewhere near the Haidian District — miles away from our spot and at a junction that we couldn’t even locate in the map.

As we stepped off the bus and started asking for directions, we encountered blank faces. For this is the story when you trek Beijing: very few speak English. And while we carried a handy Mandarin Chinese translation book, what good is it when they reply back in garbled sounds and we can’t decipher the words?

Enter Li Wei and Zhang Quiaomon.

After minutes spent quizzing the locals to no avail, we spotted the two. Wearing blue T-shirts with Olympic logos, Li and Zhang are among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese here stationed throughout the city.

They’re volunteers.

Li and Zhang — thank God! — spoke English. University students who committed five weeks of their time to assist during the Games, Li (aged 21), and Zhang, 22, led us to another bus and, as we rode together, told us of their 40-day training as volunteers and how, without pay (they receive free daily meals and Adidas apparel and shoes) they toil from early morning until late night to help manage the Games.

After seven days of roaming Beijing, I must say this: the 2008 Olympic volunteers are extraordinary. Almost everywhere you travel here, you’ll meet them. At the subway stations. At entrances of shopping complexes. Along the streets. Inside malls. Surrounding the Olympic venues. Near the bus stops.

And even inside the bank.

Last Thursday, we needed to change dollars to yuan. Right at the entrance door of the China Minshieng Bank was an all-smiling volunteer who greeted us, translated our English to the teller’s Chinese, guided us with the forms to sign, and chatted with us during the 15 minutes we waited.

Marilyn (that’s the English name she gave herself a few years back) lives, according to her, “in a far, far away province in the middle of China.” Studying an English course at a Beijing university, she volunteered to serve during the Olympics and, as she said, “to also help practice my English.”

Li, Zhang and Marilyn are three of those who comprise the staggering number of volunteers that will boggle your mind: There are 100,000 Games volunteers, 400,000 city volunteers and 1,000,000 social volunteers. In all, that’s 1.5 million volunteers!

Imagine those numbers?

Without them, the Olympics will be too costly to operate. But more than that, where will be hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors who’ve invaded Beijing from August 8 to 24 go to for help? For English translation? For directions?

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) spent three years recruiting and vetting more than two million volunteer applicants. They even held “tryouts” at various sports events where officials gauge — especially for those volunteers with more sensitive roles, like, for example, being the official guides of athletes — whether they’re up to the task.

But more than the numbers, it’s their kindness. In the dozen or so times that we’ve approached a volunteer for any kind of help — to take our photograph, to help study a complicated map, to find a dimsum eatery, to locate the gigantic and iconic CCTV building — we’ve never encountered one who’s frowning and unpleasant. They’re all eager and energized to help.

This, to me and Jasmin, above all else, symbolizes the Olympic Games.

For as one giant poster in one of the 550 kiosks around Beijing read: “We, Olympic city volunteers, have one dream — everybody can offer help to others, everybody can share the love!”

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