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Glen Gardner of Columbus, Ohio is one of about 25,000 volunteers at the Sochi Games (Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail)
Glen Gardner of Columbus, Ohio is one of about 25,000 volunteers at the Sochi Games (Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail)

Sochi volunteers used as seat fillers, do 'ridiculous' jobs – but there's a payoff Add to ...

Are we having fun yet? That’s a question many of the volunteers at the Sochi Olympics are asking. And asking and asking.

One of them is Glen Gardner of Columbus, Ohio. Gardner, 47, is a smart, accomplished guy. He owns an executive recruiting firm and used to be an engine-room machinist in a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine. He’s also a speed skating nut and skates for fun himself, so he volunteered to be part of the ice crew at the speed-skating oval.

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Instead, he found himself moving piles of snow and fences around and standing at gates, directing traffic, in the Sochi alpine centres. “It’s miserable work, but I’m trying to be a team player,” Gardner said Thursday at the Laura cross-country and biathlon skiing cluster near the Olympic mountain villages. “Then they didn’t feed us lunch. By Tuesday, I was ready to escape Russia.”

Gardner is one of about 25,000 volunteers at the Games. That’s more than 30 per cent of the total number of Sochi workers. During the competitions, almost half of them are on the job. To become volunteers, they endured a screening program, on-line training and had to pay their own way to Sochi, where they are given Spartan food and accommodation, often three or four to a room in apartments that are not quite finished (Gardner said the bathtub in his apartment was, mysteriously, plunked in the middle of the bathroom, not against the wall and has a shower curtain only on one side, ensuring the floor gets soaked).

Most are Russian and apparently most of them are pleasant young women who know a few words in English or French, smile a lot and use megaphones to blast out “Good morning” at the entrance gates to the competition areas. They are ubiquitous, each instantly recognizable by their official Sochi blue uniforms splattered with hatched patches of green, yellow and orange.

There are also too many of them. Frank, a Canadian volunteer who did not want his last name used, for fear of angering his bosses, said his jobs are menial, at best.

“Most volunteers have nothing to do,” he said. “Like me. I arrive at my chair, raise my sleeves and sun bathe. I’m supposed to be guarding [an athletes’] change room. But no one from the public can get in anyway – it’s in the athletes’ compound.”

He speaks English, French and German and expected to be put to use in translation or interpretation. “It’s a huge misallocation of resources,” he said.

So why are Gardner and Frank hanging in?

Gardner said that for every miserable moment, there is a fun moment that pulls him back from the brink of giving up. Earlier this week, he scored a ticket to the men’s half-pipe competition, a real crowd pleaser. “We were in the beautiful sunshine and I was sitting next to two beautiful Russian women who bought me beer,” he said. “That sort of recharged me and made me happy.”

He’s also having fun trading pins – a serious pursuit among spectators at any Olympics – and getting to know his British, Canadian and Chinese roommates. “We just laugh about the ridiculous jobs we did all day,” he said.

Frank is hanging in because he loves meeting the athletes and coaches and scores the occasional free ticket to an event (though he pays for most of them). He said many of the volunteers are being used to fill stadiums. “When we get tickets, we are told to reverse our jackets – the inside of the jackets are all blue – so the cameras can’t tell we’re volunteers.”

Not all the volunteers are staying put. Evgeniya Mironova, 30, a Russian management consultant has already called it quits even though she enjoyed her roommates in their kitchen-less apartment with no bathroom light.

“We faced a lot of stupid inconvenience,” she said by email. “Sometimes I thought that they hired too many personnel and employees because you had to call four people before you can solve any problem... I think I will never repeat such an experience.”

But for every volunteer who is unhappy for feels underutilized, there seems to be one who is thrilled to be at Sochi. Dana Ponomareva, 21, a railway engineering student from Siberia who works as a bus attendant at one of the media centres, said “I like the food, I like everything. I even got to the ski jumping and the opening ceremony. That was worth the trip from Siberia.”

Follow us on Twitter: @ereguly, @markmackinnon