Olympic Games:

From the Vantage Point of an Athens 2004 Volunteer

by Matina K. Psyhogeos

Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history. That is how the Father of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, saw the undertaking of one of the greatest athletic events. I would like to add to that: Holding the Games at their place of birth means re-living history, restoring the luster of the games' ancient glory, re-establishing the ideals of the Olympic Spirit, and setting precedents for future Olympiads.

Upon its return to the land of its origin, the Olympiad of 2004 promised to reclaim the beauty, grace, perfection, and supreme good of the noble competition; it promised an awakening of the coveted Truce and Ar?te (a word used by historians and writers to denote the ideal Hellenic qualities of intellectual virtue, dominion, and the capacity to achieve).
The anticipated arrival of the Olympics in its motherland incited me to research the ancient competitions, to examine the motives, rationale, and principled aspirations that inspired my forebears to create this idealistic event. This period of delving into the past, along with the consequent writing of my book, enriched me with information unequal to any knowledge I had attained prior to that point. My study of life in ancient Greece, clarified why the contests became so popular and athleticism a way of life. During this time, the culture of the complete athlete was created and the ideal of human perfection was born. A national ethos and character was shaped, and the doctrine of the ideal character was applied to all contests. Through athleticism the model of human perfection was defined and the perfect athlete emerged. This ideal athlete was distinguished by physical beauty, strength of character, inner fortitude and aręte. Contemplating these past glories and idealistic pursuits while at the same time scrutinizing the accomplishments, fears, scandals, and uncertainties of the present, made it clear to me that a return to the visionary events would be an approbation and exultation of the original high ideals of the noble competition. The call to volunteer, therefore, was indeed a blessing to me.

I must have been one of the first to apply online to the Volunteer Program of the Athens 2004 Olympic Committee, and I anxiously awaited further instructions. Several months went by, yet I had heard nothing from the Olympic Committee. I have to admit that I was becoming concerned until I found out that a hardcopy application was also required. The interview and the acceptance letter, along with my area of placement, soon followed. I was happy that I had been assigned as one of the 650 National Olympic Committee (NOC) Assistants at the Olympic Village, where more than 16,500 athletes and staff would gather for the great event.

Six months of training and seminars followed, and the experience was priceless. Former athletes and experienced instructors, having participated in previous Olympiads, took on the task of training us and preparing us to meet the challenges of handling international relations with representatives of 202 countries, the highest number of countries ever to participate in an Olympiad. The weeks and months that followed made us even more determined to work very hard to contribute as much as we possibly could to the success of this tremendous (for a small country) project. We had to deal with many detractors who did not know the meaning of volunteerism and treated us like victims of a system that had no other aim than to line the pockets of the sponsors and the immediate employees connected to the Games. I don't think any of us paid attention to the voices of pessimism and hopelessness. The 160,000 applicants (55,000 finally selected) are proof of that. The answer to all those doubting souls and the Cassandras who predicted doom was the commitment and the vow each volunteer made to do the very best he or she could to succeed in their colossal task. Each one of us enjoyed tremendously what we were assigned to do and were extremely happy to be able to set our tiny stone in order to help that magnificent structure become a work of art.

People like Program Manager Laszlo Vajda, Consultant Gianfranco Cameli, Louis Louis, Diamil Faye and many more, helped us with their expertise to understand our tasks and responsibilities as NOC Assistants. They educated us on international relations and various diverse subjects like: customs and traditions of other countries, the expectations of the Chef de Missions (the team leaders) and the athletes, and how to confront difficult situations. Gianfranco's humor and Laszlo's professionalism in every aspect of the training made the long hours pass quickly and pleasantly.
I felt from the start of the training that the Athens 2004 Olympic Committee with its Chairman, Yianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, had a vision and did an exceptional preparation in attracting as many qualified people as possible for the most difficult project a tiny country like Greece has ever attempted. The entire enterprise was thoughtfully and skillfully organized. The organizers delegated responsibilities to knowledgeable, experienced people with various posts, each one suited to perform their work according to his or her expertise, talent, personality and disposition. One in particular was the Manager of the NOC Assistant Program, Eleni Lambadariou. I, along with other volunteers at the Olympic Village that I have spoken to, feel that she gave life to the program. In my estimation, her greatest contribution was the ability to maintain her enthusiasm, her smile and her deep commitment to the task she had undertaken. She demonstrated the greatest asset of a motivator, making those she was assigned to lead feel good about being there, cheering them on and encouraging them to work hard and yet enjoy their stint. Unlike other compatriots who became frustrated under pressure, Eleni kept her cool regardless of the circumstances. The Chairman of the Athens 2004 Olympic Committee delegated that difficult task to Eleni Lambadariou and she proved to be the right person for the job. I would say she exceeded every expectation. She inspired her staff and all of us to do our utmost in showing great respect to universal fundamental principles by ascertaining to all our guests the famous Hellenic hospitality (philoxenia).

Volunteers from all over the world became role-models of selfless dedication and magnaminity of spirit. They came from afar to offer their services for the good of the noble competition, the good of humanity and solidarity, the good of world peace. Armed with eagerness, enthusiasm and courage, they joined the thousands of Greek volunteers in experiencing the most intense feeling of accomplishment. People who traveled thousands of miles from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Switzerland, the USA and many other countries enriched the volunteers of all Olympic venues, especially the NOC Assistant team. They brought with them their knowledge and experiences and contributed to the successful outcome of the project. Their participation had a profound impact on the entire program. Patrick Hassett (the pilot from Miami, Fla) who has been an NOC Assistant in seven Summer and Winter Olympics, was indeed an inspiration and earned everyone's admiration. Speaking on his experiences, at the start of our endeavor at the OV, was a godsend gift to us. His prudent advice on our responsibilities and what to do in order to avoid frustration and exhaustion, helped us enormously. August 29th (the Closing of the Games) was a distant date at that point to all of us. We had to work a day at a time and just hope for the best. And yet when Patrick said: "You're no longer an observer of history, you're part of it. When the flame burns out 29 August, you won't want to let go. You will cling to your fellow volunteers in hopes the feeling never goes away. It's not the work you did that was hard. Saying goodbye will be the tough part. Slowly enjoy the moment. Reflect with pride the lifetime of memories…." At that moment I'm certain that many of us anticipated the successful outcome when would regret that the Games were over. Patrick's expressive witness of so many wonderful events provoked us to look forward to meet the challenge. The much asked question: What makes someone so sensitive, willing to work countless hours, expend tremendous energy, travel from far-away countries, finance his or her own travel, room and board, and spend more than a month away from home, family and friends in order to participate in an enterprise such as the Olympics? Was eloquently, along with Patrick's statements, answered by one of those sensitive people: To be there for the thrill and celebrate the homecoming of the Olympic Games. This answer also coincides with our volunteer motto: I'll be there, too.

Optimism for the successful outcome of the Games, a positive attitude toward creating lasting friendships, the willingness to work hard and offer their services and skills, brought all those volunteers together. The only wish of each volunteer was to welcome the entire world on its pilgrimage to the return of the eternal ancient spirit of the beautiful, of the great, of the true (as the Olympic Hymn implies) and make everyone happy to be here. That wish was definitely realized judging from the reaction and comments of all the people who came to or watched the Games on TV. Seeing the pleased faces of their teams, the NOC Assistants forgot about fatigue, heat exhaustion and the long hours. The success of the entire enterprise justified every effort. Everyone was delighted when athletes achieved their goal and disappointed when others weren't so successful. Coubertin's words, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well," acted as a balsam for athletes experiencing the agony of defeat.

A great reward for all volunteers was also the gratification they experienced in seeing the reaction of the various countries involved. That, alone, made it all worth it. This brings me to my own reaction when our assigned countries were announced. Due to my background, I had never entertained the thought that mine would be other than North American or European. I was indeed surprised to hear that I was assigned to the continent of Africa, specifically to Gambia. Gambia is a country, I must admit, about which I knew very little, only that it was a former colony of Great Britain and that the official language was English. The first thing I did when I got home was to go directly online to search and find out more. I was fascinated to read about its history, the physical beauty of this West African country, its culture and customs. And I thought I had done my homework well. However, upon the arrival of the delegation headed by Mr. George Gomez (Chef de Mission) and his assistant, Mr. Fred Lloyd Evans, I discovered that my knowledge was still very limited. These proud Gambians were an incredible team and I learned many fascinating historical details about their lovely country. They were the epitome of what the peace-loving Gambian people are famous for: hospitality, spontaneous warm smiles and friendliness. Mr. Gomez and his team worked tirelessly to attain the best results not only for their athletes but also for the betterment of the entire Pan-African Federation, in which George Gomez, Fred Evans and the coaches were very much involved. The Athletic Academy/Museum that they have initiated, (and will soon be emulated by other African countries), is indeed a very beautiful structure, with excellent plans for the advancement of the Olympics and athleticism.

Christina, the other NOC Assistant (a medical student) working with me, was the best associate I could have asked for. This intelligent, lovely and prudent young woman offered her services with enthusiasm and made our work a very pleasant experience. She and I learned much from our very knowledgeable guests and we shared both happy and sad Olympic moments. During our team's welcoming ceremony to the Olympic Village and the raising of the country's flag, we met many Gambian officials: the National Olympic Committee President, the Minister for Youth and Sports, the Gambia Consul General to Greece and others. They surprised Christina and me with beautiful emerald-green African costumes, which we proudly wore during the ceremony and will always treasure as a memento of this outstanding cooperation.
Our work at the Olympic Village was rewarding in many ways. It gave us the opportunity to come in contact with many diverse cultures and ethnic habits, and varied religious and social customs, all entwined in one community. This experience enriched all of us and expanded our knowledge, understanding and awareness, giving us the chance to form friendships with people from many countries and far-away continents. We admired the commitment of the athletes to their chosen sport and we applauded their efforts. We were sympathetic when we saw some of their dreams crumble, and we encouraged them to be optimistic for the future and cherish the fact that they had had the opportunity to take part in such an event as the Olympic Games. Our emotions were oftentimes contradictory. I remember, on my way to the bus at the entrance of the Olympic Village, being saddened by the sight of a defeated and injured Judo athlete almost in tears as he waited for the stretcher, and moments later feeling elated by the sight of an Italian basketball player proudly stroking his silver medal as we praised him and took his picture. His boyish smile betrayed his pride. In fact, his joyful attitude made me so happy that I promised him if I ever write another Olympics book his photo and name will appear. (Unfortunately, my camera failed me and his image and ID card are fuzzy!)

The trading of pins also became a popular activity, and most of us tried to accumulate as many different pins from various countries as we possibly could. Overall, I feel that there were so many unforgettable instances that any negative thoughts anyone might have had about participating in such a demanding project should, by now, be expunged. The greatest reward for me, personally, was witnessing the outpouring of enthusiasm from the young people who will be the bearers of this selfless tradition to the next generation. Such devotion and allegiance pledged to high ideals is encouraging for the future of the Olympics and volunteerism in general. As the President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogue, stated at the Closing Ceremony, these Games were "…Unforgettable… dream Games…."

The Games were indeed outstanding. Greece has once again lived up to her high standards. The Olympic Flame is aglow, illuminating all the lofty ideals upon which the Olympic Games were founded. May the world celebrate the success of the 28th unforgettable Olympiad and look forward to subsequent Olympiads and all the aspiring Olympians!!!

Matina Psyhogeos is the author of 12 books, among them: Olympic Games, Past, Present & Future: Passing
the Torch to the New Millennium
. You can e-mail her at