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Volunteers are the overlooked gears that keep the Games machine running

Volunteers get briefed at Greenwich Park, the site for the equestrian and modern pentathlon events at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 26, 2012, in London.

Markus Schreiber/AP

Michael Phelps and his record-breaking 20 medals might have hogged the spotlight, but if you looked closely you'd see someone in the swimmer's long shadow: not a famous face, but a crucial one nonetheless.

One of the 70,000 unsung, unpaid cogs that make the great Olympic wheel turn smoothly, Dawn Bracken led the American men's team away from the pool after its win in the 4x200-metre relay, which gave Mr. Phelps his world-beating 19th medal. There was, of course, pandemonium by the poolside.

"I looked around at one point and the rest of the American team had gone in one direction and Michael Phelps in another," said Ms. Bracken, who's a swim coach by day. "Luckily, he's quite easy to spot."

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Think of the Olympics and you think athletes, coaches, massage therapists. But few people spare a thought for the thousands of volunteers who direct traffic, rake sand, fetch coffee or, in Ms. Bracken's case, make sure that medallists hit the podium when they're supposed to. (Leading them off to the loo after their swim is the job of other volunteers, known as "doping chaperones.")

It's a plum volunteer spot, considerably more glamorous than the 1,500 hours of unpaid office work Ms. Bracken put in over the past three years working for the Olympic organizing committee in London. Most of the swimmers are joyful to have won a medal. Well, there was the athlete who was bitter at not taking a gold, but Ms. Bracken is too diplomatic to name names. It was much more pleasant escorting Canada's bonze-medal-winning synchronized divers, Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion, on their triumphant walk: "They're lovely girls," said Ms. Bracken.

If you ask any of the volunteers why they're doing it – giving up holidays, braving crowds, pulling pedestrians from traffic when they forget traffic goes the other way – the answer is generally the same. They want to be part of something historic.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we'll never see anything like this again," said John Alexander, who'd normally be working for Network Rail, as he directs pedestrian traffic near the Olympic park. His job mainly involves pointing and consulting "En Route," his official guidebook to the Olympic grounds. Usually, he said, visitors are looking for the bathrooms.

"For the most part, people are happy," he said, though he gets disgruntled queries about why he's not selling tickets (he directs people to the official website). Mr. Alexander is a "Travel Champion," not to be confused with Games Makers (volunteers who work on site during the Games) and Trailblazers (who worked to prepare for the Games).

Some 240,000 people applied to be Olympics volunteers. Almost one-third of those got positions, if they passed the criminal checks and aced the in-person interviews. The work is staggeringly varied: a volunteer might drive members of the IOC family to events, or play a nurse in the opening ceremony, or even drag garbage from the once-filthy rivers of East London.

That's what Elizabeth Case got up to on her weekends: Ms. Case is a volunteer who spent 500 hours over the past two years doing everything from writing press releases to clearing scrub land in the impoverished boroughs where the Olympics is taking place. "I've learned so much about my city," Ms. Case said. "I would never have gone to the East End otherwise, I would never have met the people I did. It's completely opened my eyes."

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And what do the volunteers get in return? Not a lot, as it turns out. They don't get free tickets to anything, and they aren't even allowed into the park unless they're working there. ("It's a bit sad," one volunteer grumbled. "All these empty seats and they don't let us sit in them.") The ones selling their opening ceremonies costumes on eBay have drawn fire.

Some of the volunteers can't afford to stay in London and are camping on the outskirts of town. However, they are given plastic watches, umbrellas, "pack-a-mac" rain coats and a few items of not-very-high fashion: The Games Makers wear baseball caps and polo shirts in a particularly lurid shade of pink and purple.

Except, like everything in the Olympics, the colour scheme has an official name: "They told us it was called poppy and aubergine," said Dave Hart, a retired salesman who will be putting in more than 100 hours checking tickets at the Olympic Park.

For Mr. Hart, volunteering at the Olympics has been a wonderful experience personally, and a chance to change the way the world thinks about his country. "I think Great Britain has a bad image in the world. It's not what it used to be. People take our flag and put it on underwear." Mr. Hart is hoping, in a small way, to make a difference; "After this, people might think of us as helpful and kind."

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