Olympic volunteerism is a relatively new topic in the Olympic Movement and in research. It was not until the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics that an Olympic volunteer movement commenced. To date, the Olympic Movement has not established a policy concerning volunteerism and multiculturalism. None of the 18 main commissions of the International Olympic Committee has a primary mandate for volunteerism and multiculturalism; responsibility for recruiting and training volunteers falls to the national Olympic committees. Reflecting upon the experiences of Canada’s multiculturalism policy, this paper examines the linkage between volunteerism and multiculturalism in the Olympic Movement and develops a policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism for that movement. The policy emphasizes (a) equal recognition of all volunteers, (b) equal opportunity for personal growth through the volunteer experience, (c) provision of all volunteers with opportunity to experience the Olympic spirit, (d) cultural exchange and interchange among volunteers, and (e) a “common cultural environment.”  The researcher concludes that the outlined policy should be implemented by one of the IOC main commissions (perhaps the Commission for Culture and Olympic Education) and/or in the Olympic Charter.

Volunteerism and Multiculturalism: A Linkage for Future Olympics

The volunteer sector, traditionally known as society’s third sector, has rapidly grown since the 1970s (Hall & Banting, 2000; Scott, 1997). This trend has occurred in most western nations that have witnessed downsizing of public sector services, fiscal restraints on public resources, and increase in reliance on volunteers to serve the growing needs of society. This trend has also spilled over into the commercial sector as many corporations, businesses, and enterprises have looked to reduce costs by accepting the assistance of volunteers. Moreover, major national and international sporting events such as the Francophone Games in Canada and the Summer and Winter Olympic Games depend on volunteers more today than in the past to provide needed services to athletes, officials, spectators, and others involved with these events (Larocque, Gravelle, & Karlis, 2002).

Regardless of the type of volunteer service or environment, volunteers are made up of different people, from different backgrounds, having many different cultures (Arai, 2000–2001, 2002; Minshall, 1984). When these people come together as volunteers to provide a common service under a “common roof” to an organization or an event such as the Olympics, they not only have to abide by standards and regulations of the host country’s national Olympic committee, they also have to learn to appreciate and work with each other, despite cultural differences. Indeed, Olympic volunteers are called upon to “work with so many cultures at a time and look as if they were one” (Pellico, 1999, p. 1). As each volunteer is accustomed to a different way of life, it may be difficult for them to interact in a socially cohesive fashion (Karlis, 1998). This is a challenge that each host country’s national Olympic committee and the Olympic Movement must be prepared to contend with.

In November 1999, under the auspices of the Olympic Museum and the International Chair on Olympism, the Conference on Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement was held in Lausanne, Switzerland. This conference attracted roughly 100 experts representing nongovernmental organizations, national and international associations for volunteers, national Olympic committees, Olympic organizing committees, national and international sports federations, volunteer leaders, and researchers. The conference concluded by emphasizing that contributions made by volunteers to the Olympic Games are plentiful, extending beyond rendering services to actually enhancing the Games’ social and cultural dimensions.

At a subsequent conference, the World Conference on Olympic and Sport Tourism held in New York in November 2001, Jacques Rogge [president of the International Olympic Committee] proposed that the national Olympic committees set up volunteer corps. Rogge argued that a need for specialized volunteers exists. He went on to state that, “One must draw from culture, local traditions, and the experience acquired by volunteers, to build up volunteerism” (Rogge, 2001–2002, p. 1). Moreover, the New York Declaration put forth at this conference recognized that volunteerism is the foundation of the Olympic Movement; that is, a need exists within the Olympic Movement to promote, develop, and consolidate the culture of volunteerism.

Despite the fact that the results of both of these conferences highlighted culture as an important dimension in volunteerism, a policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism does not exist anywhere in the Olympic Movement. Although host countries’ national organizing committees continuously emphasize culture, cultural awareness, and cultural transmission, there is no policy within the Olympic Movement or Olympic Charter that guides the preparation of volunteers to serve the multicultural fabric of the Olympic Games. Moreover, a commission having the development of volunteers as its primary mandate is not to be found amongst the international Olympic commissions.

Canada is a nation that has a multicultural policy and is regarded by many as a classic example of diverse peoples living and working together in an efficient and effective manner (Karlis & Katakoullis, 1992). The 1988 introduction of its multicultural policy was Canada’s endorsement of equal recognition and equal opportunity for all Canadians (Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, 1987). More specifically, in Canada, multiculturalism policy is used by the government as an administrative tool for enhancing Canadians’ social cohesiveness (their range of ethnicities notwithstanding) and helping to establish a “Canadian” identity for this young society.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the linkage between volunteerism and multiculturalism in terms of the Olympic Movement. It addresses the call made at the conclusion of the 1999 Lausanne conference and 2001 New York conference for increased research on volunteerism at the Olympics. The paper makes a case for the implementation of volunteerism and multiculturalism within the mandate of the Olympic Movement, taking Canada’s multiculturalism policy as an example.

Volunteerism and the Olympic Games

Although it may be argued that volunteerism at the Olympic Games has a rich history, with many athletes, officials, and organizers sharing their time and effort, the concept of the Olympic volunteer is fairly young. The glossary in the official report of the 1992 Barcelona Games offered the first published definition of an Olympic volunteer. This definition states that the Olympic volunteer is “a person who makes an individual, altruistic commitment to collaborate, to the best of his/her abilities[,] in the organization of the Olympic Games, carrying out the tasks assigned to him/her without receiving payments or rewards of any other nature” (Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee, 1992, p. 381).

Historically, the concept of the Olympic volunteer evolved out of the work of the organizing committee for the Lake Placid Games in 1980. During these Games, a volunteer program was created that  focused on preparing and training approximately 6,000 volunteers (Moreno, 1999). Indeed, since 1980 there has been a greater reliance on volunteers to stage each Olympic Games, leading to increased numbers of volunteers and stronger focus on training volunteers on the part of host nations’ organizing committees. The figures in Table 1 demonstrate the growth in the numbers of volunteers at summer and winter Olympic Games.

Table 1

Numbers of Volunteers at Summer and Winter Olympic Games, 1984 to 2004

Summer Games Winter Games
Los Angeles 1984 28,742 Lake Placid 1980 6,703
Seoul 1988 27,221 Sarajevo 1984 10,450
Barcelona 1992 34,548 Calgary 1988 9,498
Atlanta 1996 60,422 Albertville 1992 unavailable
Sydney 2000 47,000 Lillehammer 1994 9,054
Athens 2004 60,000a Nagano 1998 32,579
Salt Lake City 19,000

aEstimated total volunteers for Olympics and Paralympics

Without doubt, volunteerism is an important part of implementing the Olympic Games. As Fok argued (1999), “Volunteers constitute the force that lies behind the Olympic ideal” (p. 2). Volunteers are needed not only to operate services but to assist in management and technical areas, medical support, sport event technical operations, international relations and language areas, and operative and general services (Lanzoni & Lykogianni, 1999). In Athens in 2004, there will be four periods during which volunteers will serve: (a) during “test events” used to test facilities and all operations prior to the Games (2003–04), (b) during the preparation of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (May–August 2004), (c) during the Olympic Games (13–29 August 2004), and (d) during the Paralympic Games (17–28 September 2004) (International Olympic Committee, n.d.) . The efforts of volunteers allow these Games to operate and indeed to continue to exist. The official website for the Athens Olympics puts it succinctly: “The greatest celebration of humanity is only possible through the will, the passion, the dedication and the professionalism of each volunteer” (International Olympic Committee, n.d.).

It is estimated that in Athens in 2004, 45,000 volunteers will be trained for the Olympics and 15,000 for the Paralympics. The Sydney Olympic Games utilized 47,000 in 2000; the Atlanta Games relied on the efforts of 60,422 volunteers in 1996. To equip so many volunteers to carry out the necessary tasks requires the appropriate management and guidance and also sound training. Training is probably the most important aspect of preparing to volunteer at the Olympics.

Those who volunteer make a commitment of time to the event of roughly 14 days, start to finish. But in addition, they commit time outside the actual Games for training and preparation for their tasks. In some cases there is wrap-up work after the Games. Those who volunteered for the Games in Athens completed the following steps: a personal interview, training, and participation. In past Olympics, the training process has varied slightly from organizing committee to organizing committee, reflecting the unique needs of a host nation and a specific Games. During the Sarajevo Games, for example, training was general and acquainted volunteers with the region’s geography and its social and political history, with special emphasis on the principles of socialism. At the Calgary Olympics, in contrast, a systematic plan specified training for each event location (Moreno, 1999). Nonetheless, for the most part the training of volunteers during past Olympics comprised sessions focusing on Olympic history, hosting techniques, customer services, international relations, cultural awareness, and people skills (Techmeyer, 2002). Thus there are three main “courses” involved in  training volunteers: a culture course, a tasks and functions course, and a practical hands-on course (Moreno, 1999).

More than likely, this will be the case for the Athens Games as well. A volunteer for the Athens 2004 Games will complete a training program related to a specific role (International Olympic Committee, n.d.). The training will consist of  (a) acquaintance with the history of the Ancient and Modern Olympics, (b) introduction to the different sport activities, (c) explanation of the routines of the Games, and (d) awareness of information to be given to athletes, officials, and visitors to the Games.

In preparation for the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, volunteer Britannie Hanson attended five training sessions. The first was a general orientation held in a packed high school auditorium. During orientation, uniforms were displayed and the coming months’ agenda was reviewed; door prizes (microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners) were awarded. At the next volunteer training session, training was more specific and was carried out in groups of 25 to 35 volunteers. The training topics included everything from venue locations to hospitality and international customs (e.g., some cultures consider it rude to point a finger, so volunteers were to learn to give directions without using that gesture) (Foy, 2001). The final three training sessions included one general class and two meetings devoted to learning individual job-specific and venue-specific roles.

As a reward or incentive for volunteering, volunteers receive a number of perks. For example, during the Sydney Olympics in 2000, volunteers were provided with a free uniform and received free meals and refreshments while working. In addition, free transportation on the Olympic network was provided to volunteers on duty, and volunteers received complimentary tickets to an event of the Games.

Moreno (1999) lists three kinds of effects of volunteerism that make it important to the Olympic Movement today and in the future: political effects, economic effects, and cultural effects. From a political perspective, volunteerism represents the coming together of individuals in a particular project, which leads to the expression of public momentum. From an economic perspective, volunteerism represents reduced salary costs and other expenses. From the cultural viewpoint, finally, volunteerism creates enhanced knowledge of solidarity and multiculturalism: an appreciation and respect for all cultures.

The Olympic Movement

The Olympic Movement commenced with the reestablishment of the Olympic Games by Pierre de Coubertin. Since the first modern-day Games, held in Athens in 1896, the Olympic Movement has continued to grow, shaped by Olympism, which is a philosophy based on equality of sports, which are international and democratic. Indeed, it is the goal of the Olympic Movement to assist in building a better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind. The intent of the Olympic Movement, according to a statement on www.olympic.org, is to build a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play (International Olympic Committee, n.d.).

The Olympic Movement is made up of a wide array of organizations, athletes, and other persons who agree to abide by the Olympic Charter and who recognize the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the supreme authority in the Olympic Movement. The 102-page, five-chapter Olympic Charter outlines the fundamental principles of the Olympic Movement. Members of the Olympic Movement include individuals, international sport federations, national Olympic committees, judges, referees, and athletes.

The operation of the Olympic Games is a difficult process. To aid in successfully implementing the Games, the IOC has established 18 main commissions, each consisting of experts in a specified domain. The work of these commissions addresses areas the IOC has deemed vital not only to implementing the Games, but to sustaining the Olympic Movement. The Olympic Movement extends beyond sport to the promotion of Olympic ideals through cultural and educational programs. In addition, the Olympic Movement is also concerned with humanitarian aid efforts, environmental efforts, and enhancing the status of women in sport.

Volunteerism, Multiculturalism and the Olympic Movement

A review of the Olympic Charter and of information made available by the Olympic Movement and the main IOC commissions reveals that the issue of volunteerism and multiculturalism has not been highlighted. The relationship of the two appears to receive scant attention in formal documents of the Olympic Movement; no heading in any of the five Olympic Charter chapters alludes to volunteerism. Moreover, a policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism appears not to exist anywhere in Olympic Movement documentation. Despite this omission,  Richard Pound (1999), IOC first vice president, has stated that, “the Olympic Movement is a social phenomenon based, fundamentally, on the activities of volunteers” (p. 1).

And yet none of the 18 IOC main commissions focuses primarily on volunteerism, and the Commission for Culture and Olympic Education alone addresses the issue of cultural diversity, although its mandate does not include a multicultural policy.  The role of the Commission for Culture and Olympic Education is to focus on culture’s relationship to sport  in pursuit of a linkage between sport and culture, advocation of cultural exchange, and promotion of the diversity of cultures. The commission, according to the website www.olympic.org,  fulfills its role by organizing international competitions, forums, and special events and by developing educational programs (International Olympic Committee, n.d.).

As Pound’s statement suggests, however, volunteerism and multiculturalism are important concerns in the Olympic Movement. Traditionally, volunteerism has been the responsibility of the host country’s national Olympic committee, which also would address issues of multiculturalism (again, along with the IOC Commission for Culture and Olympic Education). Thus, for the most part the Olympic Movement has addressed volunteerism and multiculturalism distinctly, rather than collectively. For example, leading up to the Athens Games, the National Olympic Committee of Greece is addressing volunteerism through two branches of the organizational structure, volunteer recruitment and volunteer training. Each branch has a manager who reports directly to the general manager of the Volunteers Division.

Multiculturalism in Canadian Society

Canada is a multicultural society. Approximately one third of Canada’s population comprises immigrants and their immediate descendents. In recognition of the cultural mosaic the population represents, the government of Canada enacted the 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act. The act underscores the value Canada places on diversity and highlights the importance of all individuals in the development of the Canadian identity. The act brought about the establishment of a multiculturalism policy, whose main objectives include (a) recognizing the cultural diversity of Canada and that Canadians are free to preserve and share their cultural heritage, affirming that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian identity; (b) confirming that ethnic origin and background should not limit anyone’s chance to help shape and build Canadian society; (c)  recognizing Canada’s culturally diverse communities and their contributions to Canadian society; (d) promoting equality for all and creating the social conditions that further the goal of equality; (e) recognizing that the social and cultural life of Canada is strengthened by bringing together Canadians of different backgrounds; and (f) recognizing that a multicultural heritage contributes to the richness of Canadian cultural expression.

Moreover, Canada’s multiculturalism policy ensures that Canadians of all origins have an equal opportunity to obtain employment and advancement in those institutions. The policy furthermore promotes programs and practices that enhance the ability of individuals and communities of all origins to contribute to the continuing evolution of Canada, as well as those that enhance understanding of and respect for the diverse members of Canadian society. Through the multicultural policy, an expectation is established that use will be made, as appropriate, of language skills and cultural understanding of individuals of all origins. Finally, the policy calls for conducting activities in a manner that is sensitive and responsive to the multicultural reality of Canada.

Lessons for the Olympic Movement

Most Olympic volunteers come from the host nation (Nakajima, 1999). One important attribute of these volunteers is patriotism, that is, helping to promote the host city and country (Ronningen, 1999). Volunteers must have a sense of national pride, must value cooperation, and must promote the Olympic spirit (Kikou, 2001). As Bontempi (2001) notes, moreover, the ideal Olympic volunteer is able to work with people of all cultural and social backgrounds.

To produce ideal Olympic volunteers is a difficult task. Traditionally, training volunteers has fallen under the auspices of the national Olympic committee of a host nation. Focus has been placed on educating volunteers about ideals of the Olympics and training them in specific skills and tasks for their volunteer positions. Training overall has been case-specific, as no policy has existed within the Olympic Movement for the training of volunteers. While an IOC policy for training volunteers perhaps is not required, since each national Olympic committee best recognizes its own needs and those tasks required to implement its Games. But perhaps an effective policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism could help create a “collective cultural orientation” among volunteers and those who train them.

Canada’s multiculturalism policy is globally renowned as one of the best. It is likely the Olympic Movement could benefit by adapting some part of the policy. The effort might start by recognizing the diverse, pluralistic nature of volunteers, highlighting how multiculturalism can contribute to an “Olympic identity.” Moreover, a policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism would help establish a collective understanding of the cultural importance of volunteerism.

An Olympic policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism should have at its center the following:

  1. equal recognition of all volunteers
  2. equal opportunity for personal growth through the volunteer experience
  3. provision of all volunteers with opportunity to experience the spirit of the Olympics
  4. cultural exchange and interchange among volunteers
  5. a “common cultural environment”

Such a policy would assist nations like Greece, whose National Olympic Committee has actively recruited prospective volunteers from the diaspora, notably Canadians, Australians, and Americans of Greek descent. Because Greece is the smallest nation to host the Olympics, the need to look beyond its borders to secure volunteers has been great. It is possible that, unlike in past Olympics, a large number of volunteers will come from countries other than the host country (Karlis, in press).

Which sector of the Olympic Movement should be responsible to implement the policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism, the national Olympic committees or the Commission for Culture and Olympic Education–or might a new commission be established for volunteerism and multiculturalism? Alternatively, should a volunteerism and multiculturalism policy be integrated within the Olympic Charter?

The national Olympic committees are responsible for the training of volunteers and thus would benefit from a policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism. To make sure all future Olympic Games would operate under the policy, it would be wise to implement it in a central governing body, such as the Commission for Culture and Olympic Education. If the Olympic Movement deems such policy important enough, an IOC commission for volunteerism and multiculturalism might even be established. This would without doubt help to further address growing use of Olympic volunteers. The implementation of policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism within the Olympic Charter would go a step further in creating a solid base for volunteerism throughout the Olympic Movement.


While since the 1980s Olympic volunteers have become increasingly valuable resources for organizing Olympic Games and carrying out their day-to-day functions, the Olympic Movement has only lately begun to recognize the importance of volunteers. Conferences in 1999 and 2001 both called for more research on Olympic volunteerism and multiculturalism, calls supported by the present research. The future of the Olympic Movement largely rests on the efforts of volunteers. A policy on volunteerism and multiculturalism would significantly enhance the volunteer movement of the Olympics, along with larger Olympic aims.


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Author Note

George Karlis, Ph.D.

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