Sometime late last fall, a friend told me that the United States Olympic Committee were looking for American volunteers in Munich for the 2014 Winter Olympic Team processing week. I’m not a huge fan of Olympic sports, actually. I’m one of the every-four-years-turn-on-the-TV-and-get-sucked-into-speed-skating kind of fan. And the 2014 Olympics seemed a little bit, well, smarmy. Corruption, environmental damage, social injustice, and mass marketing all conspired to make the Olympic Games look just one more empty shelled institution hollowed out by greed and incompetence.
Still, volunteering to work with Olympic Athletes? At the very least this should be an interesting way to pass a week or so. A chance to see up close the nature of this beast. I signed up and then applied for a security clearance wondering what the NSA didn’t already know about me. And then eventually got approved and added to a discussion board hosted by one of those business sites trying to incorporate social media into their marketing strategy. It was an odd choice but worked. It was like we had all gathered in the virtual lunchroom of the local manufacturing plant in order to start getting to know each other. Room was odd but our relationship building was great. Locals gave advice on how to get around in Munich. Travelers looked for cheap and free rooms. It turns out that traveling volunteers were paying their own way when I was plotting how to ride my bike across the park.
My first full day involved pulling apart several hundred boxes of one of the give-a-ways. We were checking the imprint on the product for the correct logo, and then inserting an instruction book before repacking the box. There were up to eight of us engaged in this task. It was the day before the athletes would start arriving and the vender’s gear had arrived in some disorder. No fear, we just all figured out what needed to be done and then started working out the way we were going to do it. We developed different systems but no one tried to impose one system over another. It started to feel… American. Where everyone just jumps in with different solutions until the right one emerges.
I met athletes, coaches and health support staff like masseuse and physical therapists. I always asked if this was their first Olympics. One coach was on his sixth or seventh Winter Olympic. That is about 24 years of coaching. I asked him what he did with all that gear and he just kind of shook his head. I asked him what he was most proud of and he said, “The athletes.” He said it wasn’t about him. I found myself silently replying, “Oh yes, I do think its about you and how you coach,” but out loud I said, “please put this on.”
Many of the Olympians were still jet lagged having just come in from California, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Colorado. Or someplace else. Some of the athletes had been completing in the Italian Dolomites and thus were already on Eurotime. Every single one of them was kind, patient, and focused. I’m going to say this again. Some of these people were coming off eight to ten hour flights and there was no drama with them. I was immediately being impressed by how much so many of them could set themselves aside for the task at hand.
One or several Olympians would walk up to the intake desk at Ralph Lauren, clipboard in hand. Like the other RL volunteers, I’d start with introducing myself and then escorting them into one of the two changing areas. Clipboard in hand I’d walk quickly into the warehouse area of the floor. Quick: grab the boots box, the parade box, the village wear bag if an athlete or the village wear box if staff. Grab the pre-packed garment bag. Hand the clip board to Annie by the computer who scanned in the athlete’s code. Then, walk all that back out. Drop off the village wear in the outer changing area with the Olympian’s name on the box or tag on the bag. Walk the rest into the changing area.
The Ralph Lauren folks had sent over a woman who’s job title was Stylist. Her task was to first make sure the opening and closing ceremony stuff fit well and that second, the Olympian knew how to wear the gear. It wasn’t enough to just put the clothes on, there were little techniques that needed to be observed. Normally, she’d have gone to the Olympic site with the team but security issues at Sochi kept her off the campus. The official Olympic phones were pre-loaded with a how-to-get-dressed app for the Olympians but I think it was her incredibly patient set of instructions that made the biggest impression. This woman touched 230 some odd Olympians somewhere between two and six times and said one of about 15 sentences for eight straight days. The last Olympian received the same care and attention as the first Olympian. Watching her I began to realize the dedication that the corporation was sending to this event. Watching the other staff, the ones who arranged shipping and the ones who supervised the whole inventory and the ones who supervised the tailors and I began to see people who were not just showing up for the paycheck but had passion for the task.
The following steps need to happen all at once. Start by opening up the garment bag and taking out the pants. Open up the plastic bag, cut off the tags and hand it to the Olympian saying “please put these on.” Then grab the socks out of the garment bag and rip them out of the plastic and also cut off the tags. Take the rubber band off the shoe box and keep the rubber band on your wrist for later. Take out the boots and take out the paper stuffing. Unlace the boots, open up the belt on the boots and cut off the tag. By this time the Olympian should be in the new pants. Ask them to put on the socks and boots. The socks go over the pants and the whole thing kind of slouches down toward the ankles. Also, the boots tie in back, behind the heel. Meanwhile, cut open the seal on the ceremony box. Pull out the base layer shirt and rip it out of the plastic. Cut off the tags and ask the Olympian to put it on. “Its an optional layer,” I say as I hand it to them ready for them to slip over their head. Immediately, I’m next ripping the opening ceremony sweater (not the cardigan but a turtle neck) out of its bag and again cutting off the tags least they get tangled up with other materials.
By now the stylist is probably in the room and starting to take a look at the Olympian. If she is close by, then I hand all the stuff directly to her and let her talk to the athlete. This really is her job and she wants to be the one leading the conversation. Which would often mean I’m handing her the belt that I had just ripped out of its little plastic bag and also removed the tags.
I really enjoyed the task of dressing the Olympians. There were a lot of details and tasks to execute in a very short period of time. I was proud that I could track the tasks and support the human being standing in front of me. One athlete surprised me by teasingly asking if I was her lady – ala Downton Abby – so I threw myself into that game. “Would my lady be so kind to sit here whilst I fetch her garments?” One Olympian startled me. “Have you done this before,” I asked him as I started to lead him toward the men’s dressing area. “What, get naked in front of women,” he replied. “sure, lots of times.” Um… that wasn’t the question I was asking actually. Later on I saw that was how he and his crew covered their anxiety. Lots of man jokes. Many Olympians asked about my own story, how I became a volunteer and so on. For many of these athletes, I was a human being, not just a minion. They knew I was a volunteer and they found that a bit amazing and humbling.
The last two items are the hat and The Sweater, the cardigan of stars and strips and Oregon sheep. This is the first time the Olympian sees his or herself as an Official Member of the United States Olympic Team. Even for the repeaters there was a sense of “awe” underneath the goofing off. Everyone ran out of the dressing room. everyone posed for photos, by themselves and with each other. Photos for mom, photos for the tweeting followers, photos for themselves to remember that this happened. It was my privilege to take some of those photos or to spend a few moments in the dressing room clearing up the debris from the frantic unpacking.
We were asked to respect the Olympian’s privacy. We were told that this processing area needed to be a safe space for them so there was no seeking of autographs or photos or even naming names on Facebook or Twitter or blogs. Some of my volunteer colleagues knew most of the athletes and would squeal quietly and in private when one of their heroes walked by. I knew almost no one and hoped that the one Olympian I kind of knew of would at least just walk by so I could say I saw that person. To my delight, I turned around and found this particular Olympian standing right behind me and in need of some assistance with one of the sub tasks. It was my privilege to spend about twenty minutes with this Olympian and to have additional conversation with this person later on. Its killing me to not name names and this has to be one of the more awkward paragraphs of my published writing history but I hope you are getting the awesomeness of this moment. It was a chance to be real people with each other in a somewhat unreal situation. Also, watching this Olympian do his/her Olympian sport thing is suddenly much more personal. I am aware I am watching a particular person and not an athletic demi-god.
After the photo round comes the time to try on the Closing Ceremony outfit. Same boots, pants, socks and belt but a thicker patterned sweater and a dark blue pea coat on top. Double button across the front but leave the last button undone. The side with the RL logo is the side that goes on top. The stylist comes by and looks at the coat. Sometimes she’ll trade it out for a larger or smaller coat and sometimes she’d just give quick orders to the tailoring staff. Maybe more photos follow or maybe the Olympian is ready to move on.
As the Olympian returns to street clothes, I’m busy hanging sweaters and coats up on hangers and stuffing the lose items into the garment bag. If there are alterations, I’m wrestling the alterations tag off the bag and handing it to the tailer for his or her notes and the remembering to attache it to the right garment in the bag. The rubber band goes back on the boot box and all of that goes back to the warehouse area for the tailoring staff and/or shipping. These outfits are being shipped to Sochi for the Olympians. I can overhear mutterings of the shipping crew about how the process is not without its hiccups but its not my problem. One of my secrets of surviving this gig is keeping track of what is and is not my problem.
Meanwhile, the Olympian is escorted to the Village Wear area. Village Wear is a bag of t-shirts, sweaters, mittens and hats. It is basically a swag bag of Ralph Lauren t-shirts, polo shirts, hats, mittens, etc.. All highly labeled with Olympic Symbols and of course, RL logos. We volunteers are already modeling many of the shirts as part of our Team RL uniform. (Being an ample sized women, I sized up into the men’s 3X and in some cases the American flag on the front of the shirt was still showing unusual wave action. Clearly my body is not Olympics ready, unless we’re talking curling. )We asked the Olympians to try on three things. If they fit, then we knew the whole kit would fit. If not, we’d start grabbing other sizes. Then, we’d check off the RL stop on their clipboard and send them off to their next stop.
I was born in 1958 which makes me a true child of the sixties. My formative years fall during a period of time when almost all of our institutions of hero worship were dis-assembling. My grade school years were punctuated by assassin bullets and televised rioting in the streets. I was fourteen during Watergate. I was seventeen when the Vietnam war finally gave up. I graduated into the gas crisis and a horrific job market not unlike the one my younger daughter just graduated into. I mostly witnessed the falling of grand institutions that were supposedly worth our investing in, not just economically but soulfully, and I had spread that cynicism to the Olympics.
There remains a great deal of money sloshing around the Olympic games and not a lot of that goes to the athletes who make that game possible. Certainly Sochi’s own issues of corruption and injustice do little to help redeem the institution. But this experience of meeting and working with the athletes and the staff, including both the United States Olympic Committee staff as well as the vender staff, has re-awoken my faith in the Olympian Ideal. At the core of this machine are some seriously awesome people. I may be lost again in naiveté but I am a born again believer in that Olympic Spirit. I was grateful to have the chance to see how the system works, and to be a small part of that support system in action.
On a more personally level, the week or so I spent in the hall was a visit back to the United States. Not only was it all American English, it was also all shared culture and norms. How to get organized on a complex task American style: plunge in and start figuring it out as you go along. Be enthusiastic. Say “awesome” a lot without being mocked. I love living in Europe, in Munich. I enjoy being out of the angry, anxious news stream of US Media. But it was nice to go visit a little island of USA for a few days. After the one last party watching the opening ceremony together at the hotel bar (Horrors! Some of the athletes were marching w/o their hats!) I felt happy walking back home from the Ubahn. I felt ready to come back to Germany having been refreshed in both hope and home.