Go Local Event - Queen Elizabeth Park, London
I was interested in this event mainly to reminisce in the memories of last years’ Olympic Games and because I had such a fabulous time as a Gamesmaker. The friend I invited along didn’t have a chance to get to the park in 2012, so I thought this would be an excellent opportunity for her to finally see it. I didn’t think much about it and although I was aware of the line up and hoped other people would be excited about it, I personally was just happy about the company and seeing the park again and revisiting the vibe of last summer. When I printed the tickets the day before and had a quick read through the outline of the event, I jokingly apologized to my friend for what sounded like a serious push to ‘recruit volunteers’ from our plus ones.
The first disappointment hit when we made our way towards the entrance. It was miles away from the Olympic stadium, which was surrounded by fences that still looked like a massive building site… I couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling creeping up my back… However I didn’t want to be ungrateful nor did I want to ruin the sunny day, so we made our way into the area that was open to us. Unfortunately there was not much recognizable in the ‘North Park’ as it either looked like a massive sand pit or just had builders fences along the pathways. I pointed out the places I vaguely remembered, like for example where the Hockey Arena used to be. I am not sure I was convincing as it is hard to imagine in the current state. We walked towards the Velodrome, hoping we could get close to it to have a look at its impressive design, but no chance because it was fenced off like everything else that would resemble the Olympic Park from 2012. I was not happy and felt sorry for dragging my friend along just to watch bands we had no particular interest in or never heard off.
Luckily they organised some rides for people to go on, of course at ridiculous prices, but I would like to think (sincerely hope) that the money will go to good causes. The coolest attraction was a zip wire ride across the pathway we had just walked up! Weirdly enough they shut the ride down before most people were even in the park, which made no sense to us as it would’ve been a money spinner all afternoon!
As there was not much else to do we were kinda forced to witness the events on stage, so we joined the masses and just baked in the sun. We were watching JoinIn-volunteers speak to spectators in the crowd about volunteering opportunities and we were trying to figure out whether the massive SIGN UP tent was busy enough to meet organisers’ expected outcome from this event. We just shrugged our shoulders about the attempted hard sell they were going for and tentatively discussed how dangerous it can be to reach the opposite effect with this approach. We had no idea what was to come.
Up until this point I may have been disappointed about not being able to see any of the Olympic Park, but I was outdoors, in the sunshine, in great company, just chilling surrounded by people that seemed to have a good time and who enjoyed the pre-show entertainment coming from the stage. I was happy after all. I wasn’t too bothered about the main show, but I was looking forward to speeches from Sebastian Coe who previously has been very humbling, appreciative and inspiring and I have the utmost respect for Eddie Izzard for being the face of the Join In initiative and guiding us with his little videos through our Gamesmaker journey. After all it was Coe and Izzard, among other influences, who made me sign up to Join In, joined a sports club in the wake of the Olympics and made me look into other volunteering opportunities because I wanted to keep the legacy going.
But when the main show started it all changed drastically. Tess Daley was the host and literally every sentence was about pushing the volunteering. It sucked the fun right out of the event. They tried to make it look lose and natural, but it was just staged and it made me cringe so much. Interviewing sports club and performance artists, pushing their stories about how they couldn’t have done anything without volunteers, it was all just in our face. Instead of telling a story like they did during the Olympic Games, going for the heart of the listener, let the message sink in naturally and inspire people to help out, they turned it into a direct “I am spelling it out for you” message which left no space for the imagination and it was put to us as if it was our duty and we had no other choice. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they made us all chant the word V O L U N T E E R. Even the speeches I was looking forward to were disappointing. To be frank, I felt insulted by them - especially by Sebastian Coe.
I never felt personally comfortable with the overwhelming gratitude and thank yous all the volunteers were shown during and after the Olympic Games last year. It was touching to hear in the closing ceremony, on TV programmes and to read in the news. They were all well deserved as were the events that were held for them in their local communities. I am just generally uncomfortable with being put onto the spotlight. I felt grateful for being given the opportunity to be part of such an important event like the Olympics and having had such an amazing time was reward enough for me. Volunteering has transformed the city during the summer of 2012 and created such a positive vibe that it automatically wanted you to look for opportunities to continue it, without even being asked to do so. It was inspiring. These three words have been used over and over last year. I am not sure if I heard them once during Friday afternoon, they definitely didn’t stick and I definitely did not feel inspired. I have also met many people who told me I was crazy working for free for two weeks whilst others made loads of money for the same work. This is the crucial thing, reasons for wanting to be a volunteer are multifold and personal. Some are hard to put into words, some are hard to comprehend. It can be a sensitive issue, lead to big emotions, possibly unexplained. Thankfully people still find them and sign up for volunteering.
I think one of the most memorable stories told during the Olympic Games 2012 was about a man who refused to accept a thank you from Sebastian Coe, instead thanking him for the opportunity to find closure after 7/7 by being part of the Games. 12 months ago I was deeply touched when Coe told about this encounter. On Friday he buried that emotion in the dust, despite the young man being his personal plus one. He was only given 1 minute with him on stage and I can’t even remember what he was saying as it was over too quickly. What could’ve turned into an interesting and touching personal anecdote worthy of Coe’s own speeches from the past, was cut short coldly. Only to be followed by one of the worst hard sells I have ever personally witnessed with an almost threatening message at the end: “we won’t let anyone leave without having signed up for future volunteering.” I was absolutely baffled and lost for words. Our cynical and sarcastic jokes from the beginning of the event had turned into a weird and uncomfortable reality that was accompanied by the inability to pick up any mobile phone signal whilst we were fenced into the North of the Olympic Park. I felt embarrassed having dragged my friend along to a ‘brain wash session’, with the repeated message by everyone from stage or video screens how she is expected to volunteer. Considering the tone of the show, I was glad that Eddie Izzard was only on stage for 60 seconds, in this way not being able to participate in this propaganda and not ruining his own inspirational video clips that guided the Join In initiative up until now.
Not everyone was able to act as unnatural within the scheme of the afternoon and so Boris Johnson still stayed true to himself and remained unthreatening and mildly entertaining. A young man of maybe 8 years promoting one of the rugby clubs (if I remember correctly), quite innocently blurted out to Tess Daley that the question she was asking him was meant for someone else. This highlighted how staged the event was and how rehearsed and unnatural the message was that came across from the organisers.
I am fully aware that this is entirely my own opinion and no one is hoping more than me, that other people didn’t feel as appalled as I did during the event. The crowd was dancing and singing along during the bands performances and all the acts were met with applause and appreciation, so hopefully it was a good day out for most. However, as I said, volunteering is personal and is something I want to do without anyone telling me to do so. It is my free time that I am willing to give up for a cause I believe in. There is a thin line between inspiring someone to join on one side, because they are able to see the rewards others gain from it or are personally touched by someone who helped them as a volunteer and then on the other side, to put people off volunteering by driving an aggressive agenda and trying to actively recruit people for something that does not feel genuine. It conveys the message of desperation and disrespect. Although I have probably already signed up, I felt judged for not signing up there and then in person no matter my reasons.
I left the event angry and disappointed and certainly didn’t stay until the end. I am glad it was staged a whole year later, so this experience will have no repercussions on my memories of the Olympic Games 2012. However, it will leave me with wariness of future events and no desire to look into any of them if the same organisers are involved. If my personal belief in volunteering weren’t as strong and I was someone looking for first time opportunities to be inspired to volunteer, then this GO LOCAL event would have failed its message entirely.