Changing China

Giant on the move

Blue and white brigade attend to every Olympic need

August 3, 2008

Volunteers play with the mascot

Visitors arriving bleary-eyed and bad-tempered to China after gruelling long-distance flights are encountering a veritable people’s army of astonishingly polite and disciplined volunteers who attend to our every whim and need.

When I got off the plane after a jetlag-inducing flight from East Africa, I found myself shepherded, as in a dream, from post-to-post by an array of smiling students. ‘This way for your Olympic fast-track channel, sir … your accreditation … your bus … your room … your complimentary umbrella.’ Some were already fluent in English, others shyly practising newly-learned phrases, crushed if I didn’t understand first time.

On the bus into Beijing, I was the only passenger — but three volunteers in their blue-and-white uniforms rode with me to check if I was comfortable and enjoying the view of pristine rows of flags and flowers in place for the Olympics.

Into a media village on the Olympic green, where about a dozen volunteers took me through a baffling array of security checks and cordons, I was too tired to respond to every respectful bow of the head.

Then, the shock: just as I was enjoying a deep sleep (3am Nairobi time), five ‘housekeeping’ volunteers burst in, trolleys clattering across a gleaming floor, to dust and wipe already spotless surfaces with vigour and smiles.

China is the world’s most populous nation, and hundreds of thousands of patriotic young people offered to be Olympics volunteers.

A lucky 100,000 of them were chosen to attend Olympic sites — that’s three for every journalist, or ten for every athlete! Another 400,000 are dotted around Beijing to help an expected 2.5 million visitors.

I’ve had plenty of interesting conversations so far with the volunteers — about the weather, the sports and my impressions of the city. An attempt to stray into politics, however, was politely rebuffed. “All countries have their positives and negatives, sir. We are no different. It rains a lot in August, you know — did you receive your umbrella?”

PHOTO: Volunteers play with an Olympic “Fuwa” mascot in front of the National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, in Beijing, July 28, 2008. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen


As an Englishman you should be pretty comfortable talking about the weather, no?

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive

Nice way to be controlled at every step.

Posted by Biba | Report as abusive

Yes, having lived and reported from some tightly-controlled societies – for example, Cuba & Eritrea – that has of course gone through my mind. But having nothing to hide, and having not been barred from anywhere (yet!), I’m not worrying too much so far…

Posted by Andrew Cawthorne | Report as abusive

Very interesting. I wanted to be a volunteer.

Posted by A Beijinger | Report as abusive

Hi, A Beijinger. Shame you didn’t make it. What happened? And why were you interested in volunteering?

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive

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