The Olympic spirit is alive and well with the volunteers

When Venezualen Cesar Augusto Baena walks around the Olympic venues in Turin, he is starry-eyed with amazement.

olympic volunteers298 88 (photo credit: Shimrit Berman)
olympic volunteers298 88
(photo credit: Shimrit Berman)
When 19-year-old Venezualen Cesar Augusto Baena walks around the Olympic venues in Turin, he is starry-eyed with amazement. Baena is a strong contender for the gold in the Olympic sport for non-athletes - pin collecting. Every delegation or body taking part in the Olympics brings pins, and it doesn't take long before the massive trading market gets into full swing, and the traders add any newly collected pin to the string holding their accreditation card. Baena, however, didn't trade any pins: he received those as a thank you gift from people he has helped since the beginning of the games. Like more than 25,000 others, he is a volunteer. The volunteers are the main mass of the work force at the Olympic games. The Olympics aren't just 16 days of continuing broadcasts of sports competition; they're a vast operation, that includes athletes and delegation members, journalists and photographers, officials and others, and is spread among numerous venues. Without the massive contribution of the volunteers, the Olympics could not succeed. "I volunteer because of the Olympic spirit," Baena explains. "When I was a little kid my parents had a VCR with the Olympic rings on it, and I remember always looking at it, thinking about the Olympics. I always wanted to take part in it. Being here is not about the money, it's just about being here and helping people." Baena also volunteered in the Athens summer Olympics, where at age 17 he was one of the youngest volunteers and only one of three Venezuelans. Not only do volunteers work for free - they agree to work for shifts of at least eight hours, every day - they are responsible for their own flight and accommodation arrangements. For most of the volunteers it is not a problem - 60 percent of them are locals. Another 30 percent come from the rest of Italy. Only about 3,000 volunteers are international. Twenty-six-year-old Jessica Trenzado and her fianc e, Demetrios Douzenis, 28, applied to volunteer back in April 2004, a couple of months after the registration period began. "We were studying in Australia at the time," Trenzado explained, "And we knew people who volunteered in Athens, so we decided to do it too." "You fill out an application form, pretty much like a job application," Demetrios describes the long process of getting to the Olympics. "you write everything down. Education, job experience, languages, everything that you would have put down on your CV. Then they have a screening process, and after that there are the interviews. We are internationals so the interviews were over the phone." More than a year later, they were accepted. A little more than a half of the applicants were, too. Then they had to look for accommodations. The Canadian-Greek Douzenis studied a semester in Turin in 2001 and was still in touch with the university there, through which he managed to arrange accommodations for them. For 22-year-old Bulgarian Ivan Ivanov, it was even easier - he is an Erasmus student at the Torino University and stays there. Baena had to be more creative. "In Caracas, I had a neighbor who was a model and moved to Italy. She lives with an Italian guy here now, so when I came they said that since I am a volunteer I can stay at their place for free." One thing that the four have in common, as with many other international volunteers is their multi-cultural background. American Trenzado was born to Cuban parents and speaks three languages fluently, as is her fiancee and Baena. Ivanov speaks Russian and English as well as Bulgarian, and all of them have studied abroad. "The thing here is to work in a multi-cultural environment. There are so many people from so many nations here, there are a lot of cross cultural differences in manners and behavior." One other thing they share is the appreciation for the Olympic spirit. The Olympics, they say, is much more than competitions. "The best moment being here," Demitrious says, "wasn't in a specific moment or venue. It was just walking around the city, feeling the air, the buzz, the vibration of the streets, there are so many people here." "The greatest lesson I've learned here," shares Baena, "is how to be a person. A few days ago I went with some other volunteers to the mountains. One of the Italian guys was complaining about the bathroom and swearing. Then another volunteer said to me, just relax, set an example. This is what I want to take from here. To set an example here and back at home. I want to be a good citizen, to do things because I want to, not because I am told to. That's what the Olympic spirit is about and that's why I'm here." He hasn't had the opportunity to attend any competitions yet. Jessica and Demetrios did, but they paid for their tickets. "We got to see a lot of stuff... and we were at the opening ceremony too. But it's more about the cultural events. The delegations have national houses set in the city center and it is all just buzzing with atmosphere and excitement." "That's our way to relax after work," smiles Ivanov, "we work hard and we're tired, but it's better to do that then go back and sleep." Although there were some training days in January, most of the volunteers who are missing on either school or work, were not here yet. "You learn on the job," says Jessica. "You also end up seeing events in a different way. You know exactly how things work. When you go to an event, it's still exciting because it's the Olympics, but you start to pay attention to all the details." As they get ready to leave after another extra-long shift, they already begin to plan their evening, because they know that the city, and the thousands of people who came to Turin to be a part of the Olympic experience, are waiting.