Joel Reichenberger: Volunteers' power is powered by Olympics

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One of the many things that are changing quickly at the 2014 Winter Olympics is Russia is the makeup of the volunteer force.

The volunteers here are the definition of ubiquitous. A supervisor told me there were 25,000 in uniform, and honestly, it often seems like they outnumber regular fans. You can’t do anything or go anywhere without seeming truckloads of them, and they’re all wearing exactly the same thing, clothed head to toe in Sochi 2014 gear, from the ski pants to the jackets to the backpacks and yes, even Sochi 2014-branded tennis shoes.

2014 Winter Olympics

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They look like waves of clones.

When we first arrived, literally every one we encountered was Russian, those with the broken English that I’ve written about.

That’s actually begun to change, and it became obvious to me today when I was looking for help in the Olympic Park in Sochi.

Spending so much time talking to people who struggle with English has changed the way I talk, at least to them. I definitely go slower, and as dumb as it sounds, I struggle not to say my words to them with a bad Russian accent. As if the lack of an accent is what’s holding our communication up.

I’ve also nearly tried to use Spanish words on several occasions, as if that’s the language all people who can’t understand me speak.

It’s become less necessary, though, as more and more of the volunteers speak fluent English.

Some of that is just running into Russians who are bilingual. Those staffing the help desks and information kiosks seem to have been singled out for their ability to communicate and seem to relish a conversation in English, asking about words and practicing them with each other.

Others, though, are just Americans.

I was asking for help, speaking slow and stupid to a young man in the Olympic Plaza when he responded in perfect English.

Turns out, he’s from New York. He had a break between undergrad and medical school and decided he’d like to spend it volunteering at the Olympics.

The job itself sounds like a mixed bag. He said it’s long hours and no pay, hence the “volunteering” aspect. But it includes a room and food. If an event isn’t sold out — and plenty have not been — volunteers can go for free.

My New Yorker was looking forward to speed skating.

“Another great part,” he said, “is you get to see the athletes. I’ll just see speed skaters walking around down here. I think other people don’t even recognize some of them.”

I’d wager most other people don’t recognize any of the speed skaters, not just some of the speed skaters, but he was a nice guy and I’m glad he got a kick out of it.

The crowd of volunteers I ran into Wednesday night certainly recognized one athlete.

The snowboard half-pipe training sessions were all bumped back to this evening, and as they are directly adjacent to the moguls course, I stepped over before the men’s moguls finals to try to get some pictures of Arielle and Taylor Gold.

Training sessions are way more low key than the events and they’re a great chance to spend some time talking to the athletes one-on-one or in small groups.

It was no small group that surrounded Shaun White, however.

After answering questions for about 10 minutes, coaches and security officials finally started to beat back the press and White got some breathing room made a break for it. He didn’t get far, however. The press was kept at bay, but an army of volunteers swooped in and surrounded the man favored to win his third half-pipe gold medal on Tuesday.

The volunteers came ready, with markers and snowboarding helmets ready for autographs.

White actually played along, signing for them but the delay in his escape allowed the press to catch back up and a French TV reporter pinned him down for another interview.

Such is life as the most famous athlete at these Olympics. I bet the speed skaters don’t have those same problems, perhaps with one exception.

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