LANE ONE: On volunteerism and the Olympic Games, you see which “economists” actually know something about economics, and people

Volunteers at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games

The Associated Press’s Stephen Wade posted a story last Friday entitled “Olympic volunteers: One-time chance, or exploitation?” and proceeded to quote a Drexel Sports Management processor named Joel Maxcy, who called the practice of using volunteers, “To me, it’s very clearly economic exploitation.”

The rest of the article struggled to find any prospective volunteers for the Tokyo Games who agreed with him.

And Maxcy, who received a Ph.D. in Economics from Washington State University, completely missed the point.

It’s worth remembering how the concept of using volunteers actually got started, at the Games of the XXIIIrd Olympiad in Los Angeles in 1984. As the Vice President for Press Operations for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, I had more than 1,000 volunteers helping us for as long as a month, beginning when the Main Press Center opened on 14 July 1984.

How did all of this start?

Through the 1980 Games in Moscow (URS), essentially all staff were paid. Given the circumstances of the Cold War and the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games, the Soviets were hardly forthcoming with information about how they organized the Games. But we had a lot of access to extremely detailed information about the 1976 Games in Montreal (CAN), which not only ran a huge deficit due to construction costs, but also had its share of administrative and organizational problems.

One of them was with its lowest-level paid staff, whose interest level and performance varied wildly from venue to venue. The biggest problems came from no-shows, not all that interested in the low pay and very modest support services, and, most of all, in the often uninspiring work in parking lots, entrances or in labor of various types, usually well away from the field of play.

The question of how staffing for the 1984 Games should be approached was also colored by the organizing committee’s need for financial restraint, since the Games were being financed privately. But at the same time, this was the first time the summer Games had returned to the U.S. since the Los Angeles Games of 1932 and the event needed to reflect the California of the 1980s in style and operations.

One of the strong features of Los Angeles life – and social life in many large cities in the U.S. – was (and is) volunteerism. Enormous projects, such as the conception, fund-raising and building of the massive Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, had been done primarily by large groups of volunteers, with help from a small number of paid staff.

Bringing the Games to Los Angeles was itself a volunteer project. The bid team from Los Angeles had a grand total of one person who was paid on a part-time basis. The rest were unpaid civic leaders, corporate leaders and officers, publicists, lawyers and others who believe the Games would be successful both in Los Angeles and for Los Angeles.

Sporting events in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California were often operated by volunteers, starting with parents helping with Little League baseball teams, all the way up to world-class events in gymnastics, swimming, track & field and others, in which the competition officials were all volunteers, and themselves organized by volunteers Boards of Directors.

Against this background, those of us working within the LAOOC were certain that the volunteer concept would work well, and with an esprit de corps that would alleviate many of the no-show issues. The volunteers would have to be trained, of course, and many departments wanted to recruit their own volunteers to try and get individuals who would be interested in the specific work involved. That was our choice in Press Operations: we wanted journalism students, sports statisticians, sports officials and others who wanted to be around the press and assist them.

The results were magnificent, and the 33,000-plus volunteers in Los Angeles made the Games work brilliantly. Absenteeism was very low and there was a ready reserve of people who continued to ask if they could volunteer, even during the Games!

One of the aspects of the volunteer program which was not expected was the interest of people from out of the Southern California area to come and help in Los Angeles. In Press Operations, we had dozens of volunteers from Europe who came to work on the Games and were some of our best staff members.

The Los Angeles experience changed the Olympic Games and all other major sporting events in the Olympic Movement into the future. The volunteer corps is an expected part of the program. But it has limits.

These were demonstrated in Rio de Janeiro (BRA) at the 2016 Olympic Games, in a city and country where volunteerism is not as well established. The Rio organizers found themselves short of staff again and again, as significant numbers of volunteers registered, were trained and then abandoned the program as soon as they were issued uniforms. The apparel was perceived to have real value, but working on the Games was not, at least for some.

And that is the key to making a volunteer program successful. If the community in the host city or country believes that the Games is a worthwhile civic exercise and the experience will provide a personal benefit to them, they will come in big numbers.

Witness Tokyo 2020, which conducted a three-month campaign to recruit volunteers in the final months of 2018, received a staggering total of 186,101 applications. According to the organizing committee, “Applicants to date range in age from teenagers to those in their 80’s; 63% are female and 37% male, with 63% having Japanese nationality and 37% of applications coming from non-Japanese.”

This is very, very impressive. The Tokyo organizers now have a major task on their hands to assign and train these folks, and many will drop away before the Games. But, from an organizing committee perspective, it’s a good problem to have.

So, Prof. Maxcy, all of these people have volunteered to be exploited?

Hardly. As an Economics major at UCLA in the 1970s, I remember well being taught that while money is an important aspect of market activities, non-monetary aspects must be accounted for and are often decisive.

Donald Boudreaux, a professor of economics at George Mason University, put it well on the Web site in 2011, noting that “Show me a good economist and I’ll show you someone who never supposes that money, money prices, and monetary wealth are all that matter – in fact, someone who understands that, at the end of the day, money is never (save in the psychopathic cases of misers) what ultimately matters to anyone.”

We see this constantly in daily life, with people who make choices based on their own value systems against alternatives that might cost less in monetary terms. People whose lives follow patterns based on environmental issues, veganism, religious beliefs and practices and many others are all around us, and are us.

So it is with volunteerism at the Olympic Games, some of which fill the lowest-end jobs that would otherwise draw minimum-wage workers, on up to middle managers, where hiring anyone with actual experience might be impossible. As temporary jobs that last a month at best and do not lead to other work – remember, the organizing committee essentially goes out of business after the Games – these are jobs that many unemployed workers aren’t all that interested in.

Wade’s story quoted more economists as well as some of the Tokyo volunteer applicants who want to be part of the Games for love of adventure, or love of country or other attachments. As International Olympic Committee member John Coates (AUS) – who was a senior member of the Sydney 2000 organizing committee – noted, “They don’t have to apply if they don’t want to.”

Coates also argued that events like the Olympic Games could not operate without volunteers. That’s not true; they certainly can; it’s another expense that has to be planned for from the beginning. But getting a motivated work force to work in parking lots or serve in logistics roles is hard even for companies in those fields; the volunteer work force for a major Games or event brings a motivation which is often impossible to duplicate with paid staff.

The story also quoted a sports economist named David Berri at Southern Utah University, who said, “If the volunteers were paid, there would be less money for everyone else. The Olympics have learned people will work for free, so they take advantage of this. If they (Olympic officials) really thought this was all OK, they should obviously volunteer to work for free.”

Berri doesn’t seem to know much about Olympic sports, which continue to be run mostly by volunteers. And as far as getting paid, the story noted that IOC President Thomas Bach gets an “allowance” of $250,000 per year. How does that compare to the millions paid – as salary – to heads of individual leagues like the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball? Suddenly, it doesn’t look like all that much.

And Berri has obviously spent no time inside an organizing committee for an Olympic Games or similar event. The salaries as OK, but hardly great.

But it’s great work, and whether you are a paid staff member working on an event for years, or a volunteer for a few weeks, isn’t that the point?

Rich Perelman

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