VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Affectionately known as "Smurfs," the omni-present mass of blue-clad Olympic volunteers have been the backbone workforce of the Vancouver Olympic Games, working up to 12 hours a day for little more than an outfit and some plush toys.
They were seen nearly everywhere touched by the Olympic Games, standing on street corners offering a helpful point toward a venue, or doing the technical work of maintaining track conditions on weather-knocked Olympic venues. They provided technical services for media and played the role of chauffeur for Olympic officials and athletes.
And they didn't get a dime.
Some trained one day a weekend for six months just to be able to put in grueling days where 8-10 hours are expected. They did get lunch, but not fillet Mignon or Alaskan crab.
They were the unsung heroes of these games, and the face of Canada to out-of-town visitors looking for a bit of help. Ninety-five percent of the intrepid volunteers were from somewhere in Canada.
They Don’t Quit
But perhaps the most amazing thing about them is that these Smurfs never quit—literally.
About 18,500 of them were used in the Olympics, and 6,500 for the Paralympics, of those 3,000 will be held over from the Olympics.
In what has become a real success story for these games, Vancouver's 25,000 Olympic and Paralympics volunteers have pulled off a gold-medal performance.
"It is an unbelievable commitment, and far beyond what we expected," said Allen Vansen, who heads up Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) workforce department.
Some working the Whistler Mountain Creekside venue had to arrive at work at 2 a.m. and work 12 hours to get the venue ready for competition. It's grueling work.
Lucky for VANOC, British Columbia has a flood of dedicated amateur athletes willing to put their sweat into the venues that will host the elite of their sports.
"We have been continually impressed with how amazing our volunteers have turned out to be,” said Vansen.
"They have been an inspiration to inspiration" he said.
And the bar wasn't low to get in. Some 77,000 people applied, and less than a third got in. They had to be willing to work flexible hours, be available for a minimum of 13 shifts and longer than 10 hours if needed.
Many roles called for specialized skills, like "field of play" operations that might require course grooming, language services, or computer skills.
"This volunteer population, they have been unbelievably impressive, they haven't gotten tired they haven't left their posts."
Vansen said there have been a handful of volunteers that couldn't make it through the games, but that number was almost half what was expected. That means, from the two years ago when the application process began to now, only 18 per cent have not carried through on their plan to work full time for the two weeks of the games.
Previous Olympics and other similar events like the Pan-American Games normally see a 30 percent attrition rate.
Vansen credits much of that success to giving their volunteer army a clear idea of what they would be doing and how to do it, as well as a comprehensive recognition program that gives workers perks for shifts like pins and plush toys, and sometimes a watch from sponsor Omega.
And they also get to keep their iconic blue outfits.
But more important than perks, says Vansen, may be their commitment to each other.
"They kind of don't want to let each other down," he said.