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How to Volunteer at the Olympics—and Beyond

Olympian Kerri Walsh shakes the hands of volunteers during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Craig Maccubbin CC BY 2.0

By  Sheila Taylor August 9, 2016

Let the games begin.

This August, more than half a million tourists are expected in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Many visitors will simply go to the events, drink caipirinhas, get a sunburn on the beach and then go home, but behind the scenes will be an international group of dedicated volunteers. Around 50,000 volunteers are needed for the global sporting mega-event—almost double that of the 2000 Sydney Games.

“Volunteers represent the hidden jewel,” says Roberta Viera, Workforce Coordinator for Rio 2016. “They are not the stars of the Games like the athletes, but without them, it would be impossible for the games to happen.”

With paid staff members accounting for less than a third of the workforce, thousands of volunteer positions are available—from ceremony dancers to administrative assistants—with positions lasting anywhere from one to four months.

“You are not just a spectator; you get close to the event,” says one Olympics volunteer.

However, while the opportunity is remarkable, it’s also highly competitive—and requires plenty of advance planning. Positions open about two years prior to the event (so it's not too early to start thinking about registering for Pyeongchang 2018) and volunteers are typically responsible for covering their own accommodation, transportation and visa costs. Details for each event can be found on the Olympics site and the respective official host city sites.

For sporting enthusiasts, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime gig. Linguistics graduate Natasha Lozitsky decided to volunteer because she wanted to participate in a global event. As a volunteer with interpretation services at Rio 2016, Lozitsky—who speaks Ukrainian, English, Portuguese and French—is responsible for doing everything from interviewing competitors to helping explain doping control procedures to athletes. “You are not just a spectator; you get close to the event,” she says.

Although volunteer recruitment for the Olympic Games officially closed in April, there are still plenty of opportunities available elsewhere in Brazil. With the need for tourist visas waived for Canadian and American visitors until September 18, there's no reason why you can't stay a bit longer and volunteer for a worthy cause. Here are some places to get started:

Internations Rio Volunteer Group Consul

A great place to start your search for volunteer positions, this online community lists local opportunities that are open to foreigners and nationals alike. internations.org/activity-group/5529

Rio Olympics Neighbourhood Watch

Launched in 2010, this community news reporting site brings visibility to often misrepresented favela voices—particularly as 2016 Olympics shine a light on Rio. “We’re looking for a cohort of folks to document community solutions and initiatives in favelas,” says founder Dr. Theresa Williamsom. The organization is primarily seeking volunteers who can write and wish to develop journalism skills. rioonwatch.org

Il Sorriso dei Miei Bimbi ("My Children's Smile")

After living in the Rocinha (one of the largest favelas in South America) for 15 years, Italian Barbara Olivia founded “My Children’s Smile” in 2002. With experience in developing education programs for children, Olivia wanted to improve the social and education conditions for youth in her community. A truly immersive experience, volunteers live in the favela, where they interact with the community. Those interested in volunteering should speak Portuguese, have strong math skills and be able to commit to a minimum of four weeks. ilsorrisodeimieibimbi.org

Riding Against Cancer

This unique program provides children with cancer a chance to interact with horses and ponies. Program founder Ana Stela explains who they are looking for, “We’re looking for volunteers that have experience with horses—but really what we need is love and compassion.”  She adds that they will train people with no previous horse experience. The group meets every Wednesday morning in Lagoa. facebook.com/cavaleiroscontraocancer

Social Starters

If you have three years of professional experience and are looking to break into social entrepreneurship, Social Starters connects volunteers with social enterprises in India, Sri Lanka and Brazil. Typically a six-week program, one-off volunteer specific role placements can also be arranged for four to 12 weeks. According to Jiselle Steele, Brazil program director, fluency in Portuguese isn’t a must—but it is helpful. “We're lucky enough to work with some amazing volunteer translators who are from Rio, who support our volunteers to communicate with the projects they are matched with,” she explains. Applications can be made online. socialstarters.org

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