Olympic Memories: Kazakhstan’s London Olympic Volunteers

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With the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games coming up in 2016, we take a look back to the
Olympic Games which took place in London in 2012, and which were judged by many as the
most successful. Many people also said it was thanks to the thousands of volunteers. With the Kazakhstan team at the Games supported by 7 volunteers, we tell the stories of 2 of them, Alexandra Ivanova and Jeff Temple.
Alex is originally from Yakutsk, Russia, studied and worked in the United States for 12 years and moved to London in 2008 where she works at a large Investment Management Company as a fixed-income investment analyst overseeing institutional client portfolios. Jeff lived in Shymkent from 2001 till 2009 where he was a manager in PetroKazakhstan, and now returns to Shymkent to support new business.

Alex and Jeff now tell their story.

Preparations

The Olympics are truly massive and the largest sporting event in the world. In the London Olympics volunteers took on many functions from showing people to their seats, acting as guides, as drivers, as first-aid helpers, and assisting the athletes and their delegations. In London there were a total of 204 Olympic and 170 Paralympic delegations. The smallest size delegation had only four people and the biggest had almost 800. That meant a total of over 20,000 athletes and officials to be assisted! Ability to drive, to speak different languages, to commit time, and to use initiative and common sense were all the skills required to fulfil the “assistant” role.

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Our journey as Olympic volunteers started back in 2010 when the London Organising Committee of Olympic Games (LOCOG) opened the registration process for potential volunteers around the country. Over the next 2 years we were selected and trained for our jobs. Out of 250,000 applications received, about 2,500 were selected to work directly with the delegations. We underwent substantial training that lasted many months and were fully prepared for our roles at the Games time. It was an incredible opportunity to
meet interesting people and give something back to the community while gaining invaluable skills, experiences and memories to last a lifetime. We both considered ourselves very fortunate to be selected to work alongside the team of Kazakhstan.

Our training started with the heritage of the Games and gave some insights into how actual working days would look like with interviews with the contractors, organisers, former Olympic champions and experience from previous Games. We learned the different components of the Games, and how we should be looking after the athletes and the delegations. Transport was provided between all Olympic venues, so our job was limited to special missions to help the Kazakhstan delegations. Above all, we were taught that our job was to ensure the athletes performed to the best of their abilities in their events.

During the games we were based in the Olympic village – that was one of the greatest perks of the job! When the Kazakh delegation arrived, the assistants were to help with transportation, guiding the delegations through the village, and making sure each and every room was fully equipped. We learned that the Athlete’s Village would be much like an independent residential area with its own post office, hair dressers, jogging area, restaurants, cafes, and its own emergency and fire fleet, but above all was to be an area where the athletes could relax, away from public attention, their
sanctuary. To give you one piece of information which sums up the size of the Games – the main Olympic dining hall is the largest on the planet, holding 5,000
seats and serving up to 60,000 meals a day.

The Delegations Arrive

Our first official shift as Olympic volunteers started on Sunday, 15th July, two weeks before the start of the Games, with the arrival of the first official members of the Kazakhstan delegation. We met the representatives at around 7pm, and helped them settle into their residence. One of the tasks for us was to help out with the inventory check-in where every room, piece of furniture, key, bed, towel, even hanger, had to be checked and signed off. That’s a lot of counting!

The delegations of athletes, trainers and officials slowly started to arrive during the coming days, and our lives built up into a hive of activity. Although most athletes stayed in the Village, the Minister of Sport, Mr. Talgat Yermigiyayev rented a private residence near the Tower of London for the most gold-hopeful athletes in weightlifting and their coaches, where they had free accommodation and personal chefs cooking special dietary meals for them. This included Zulfia Chinshanlo, Maya Maneza, Svetlana Podobedova and
the legendary Ilya Ilyin. It was our job to drive these legends to and from their house, and what an honour and a pleasure it was! We learned from these athletes the science of weightlifting, and how to play strategically with the starting weight to psychologically influence the opponents. To spend time chatting with world renowned athletes and who ultimately went on to win gold medals makes all the work and effort we put in worthwhile. Zulfia is a very young girl who seems to not quite comprehend what an extraordinary athlete
she is. Alex remembers one journey when she needed to have someone sit in the back of the 7-seater with all the luggage one day, Zulfia quickly told her two lightweight weightlifter colleagues to play ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to decide who will be lucky enough to ride with all the bags. Also, living at a private residence, with all its amenities, she longed to stay with other athletes in the Olympic Village, and when finally she won her gold-medal she was all smiles all the way to her new accommodation where she could communicate with other athletes and just experience dynamic life of the Village.

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The day before the Road Cycling competition, after helping Alexander Vinokurov and his team-mate with the set-up of the GPS, so they could head into the right direction the next morning, Alex helped the coach with fixing the bikes on the racks. At the technical meeting, she also helped with translating the details of the race, logistics, and timelines of the Road Race the next day. On the way back she asked the head coach what were our chances of winning, and he confessed that he considered Team GB as the main contender for the gold, but said it all depended on what happened on the day of the race. “The chances are there – it is whether we will be able to use them or not.” Vinokurov did use his chances, winning the first gold for the Kazakhstan team on the first day of the Games.

From the very first days we were busy with our translating tasks, doing the inventory check in, accompanying the athletes and officials to the Rowing Village, helping familiarise the athletes with the Village, and ensuring that all the equipment was in the right place at the right time, not always easy! Another of the translating tasks was to help the sport officials and coaches during their technical meeting which took place a day before the actual competition. Jeff also had to make sure that the correct flag was being used, as well as the correct national anthem was played at ceremonies. We had to help out the artistic gymnastics coach with translation, helping find out which mats the athletes could use for warming up, which training hall apparatuses were available for competitors and when they could use them. All these activities were new to us volunteers, but with our training we felt we had the required competence. The Olympic spirit was present all around us, with
friendship and a shared feeling of camaraderie. To encourage the athletes to see other sports, each day we applied for free tickets for the athletes to see sports other than their own, and each day we passed these tickets to the administrators for distribution. After winning a Gold medal, it was again our turn to pick up the gold medal winners from the anti-doping tests, and to drive them with their entourage to the Kazakhstan press centre. Alex and Jeff both had their share of having Gold medallists sit in their cars!

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The day of the closing ceremony was the greatest event anticipated by the Kazakhstan delegation – the final competition day in boxing. There were three medal hopes in three difference weight categories. It was one of the best days for the Kazakh team since they
won three medals, a bronze in Super heavy weight by Ivan Dychko, a silver in light heavy weight by Adilbek Niyazymbetov, and a gold in welter weight by Serik Sapiev, who was also named the Best Technical Male Boxer of the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Alex and Jeff both think the best part of being a volunteer was being able to see first-hand how worldclass athletes get ready for their competitions and being able to share their joy in winning their events. We were fortunate enough to be present at five events where “our” athletes won gold medals, and we witnessed world records being made by Zulya and Ilya first-hand. The whole experience was truly inspiring and very emotional. The Kazakhstan delegation made also very clear to all of us assistant volunteers that we had played a part in their team’s very successful performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games and that we have also ‘won’ a part of their gold medals along with them.

The last day of the Games, after the excitement of the final medals, we had to assemble the athletes for the closing ceremony. Once they had gone off to the stadium, we came back to an empty office space, and at that moment, sitting in an empty room with only the TV on, we suddenly realized it was all over. It was sadness combined with physical exhaustion but with emotions of great accomplishment all bundled together. Someone said after the Olympics: ‘tiredness passes but memories last’. We were so grateful to the LOCOG for giving us this unbelievable opportunity to be a part of something great and everlasting, and to the Kazakhstan Olympic Team for allowing us to be a part of their team’s greatest Olympic performance ever!

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