Why I’m Not in Sochi for the Winter Olympics

Sochi
Photo credit: Stefan Krasowski via Flickr.

I should be in Sochi right now.

At least, I could be in Sochi right now.

Not as a spectator and certainly not as an athlete, but as a volunteer.

Two years ago around this time I was in Ukraine and, not having any clue what exactly I would be doing in February 2014, I applied to be a volunteer for the Sochi Olympics. Being a native English speaker who can also speak decent Russian, I thought I might be of great value as a volunteer. And as a huge sports fan who has dreamed of seeing the Olympics in person for as long as I can remember, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to check that off my bucket list.

I submitted an online application which was surprisingly brief. About a month later, I received an email telling me I had been assigned to the Moscow Volunteer Hub and that my application was under consideration. After months of silence, I finally heard from the committee again in July, when I was invited to participate in a Skype interview. However, all of the possible dates were full so I couldn’t schedule anything. But I kept getting emails inviting me to interview and I eventually scheduled one in the fall after I was finally back in the United States, staying with my parents in Minnesota.

The day before my scheduled interview, the phone started ringing around 2:00 a.m. – it was someone calling from Moscow wanting to see if I could Skype then! I politely informed them that I was in the United States (duh) and that it was the middle of the night and could I please just do my regularly scheduled time (which was still going to be around 6:00 a.m. the next day due to the time difference). They obliged and I went back to bed. The next morning, I rolled out of bed at 5:45 to go down to the basement to do my Skype interview.

The interview was a blur since I was still half asleep. The guy interviewing me was in a busy office with a lot of people talking and walking around in the background and it was very hard to hear him. His English was quite poor and I felt like he didn’t really understand the majority of answers I gave, even as I tried to speak clearly and slowly. I offered to speak Russian but he insisted on continuing in English.  I closed down Skype less than 20 minutes later feeling like it didn’t go so well.

And then I waited.

And waited and waited and waited.

I compared notes with my friend Kami who also applied to volunteer but neither of us heard anything.

I took a job and moved to Chicago and pretty much assumed I was not selected.

Sometime in mid-January 2013, I tried to log in to the volunteer portal to check my status but I couldn’t get in. A full month (and a dozen emails) later, I was finally able to get in again after someone helped me update my password and email address, which served as my username. I was still not optimistic that I would be selected.

Then, on August 6, 2013, I got the following email (translated from Russian):

Congratulations!

You have successfully completed training in your volunteer center and at the moment we are pleased to invite you to the portal training games where collected all the necessary content for the Sochi 2014 Games, including test items and more – much more!

To say I was confused would be a massive understatement.

The next day, I received this:

Dear Sochi 2014 Volunteer Candidate!

This is to inform you that previous letters in Russian with an invitation to the distance learning portal were caused by a technical error; please ignore them. We will inform you about any further changes separately.

Please take our apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for understanding.

Finally, on September 10, 2013 (a full 19 months after I first applied and just 5 months before the start of the Olympics), I got this:

Dear volunteer!

We congratulate you on the successful passage of the stages of selection: tests and interviews. There is still a lot of interesting contacts, events, fascinating work at the XXII Olympic Winter Games and XI Paralympic Winter Games 2014 in Sochi.

Now you will have a very important stage – the signing of the agreement with the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee. Please pay special attention to this document. Filling the agreement is a prerequisite for obtaining a visa.

You need to:

1.     Carefully read the agreement.

2.       Please fill in all lines carefully. 

3.     Print 2 copies and sign both 

4.     Send both copies to the address: 119017,  Russia, Moscow, P.O.B. 121

Send an agreement is required before September 25, 2013!

This included an email address to contact with questions and I sent an email with questions immediately. What was my volunteer assignment? When did I need to be there? How many hours would I be volunteering? Where would I stay? These were all questions I needed answered before I would feel comfortable agreeing to be a volunteer. I certainly was not going to beg for three weeks off work that I didn’t have and spend $1000 to fly to Russia unless I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Unfortunately, no answers came. I received a couple more form emails and I sent a few follow up emails but no answers came.

So I didn’t sign the volunteer agreement and I ignored subsequent emails (which I continued to receive even after the September 25 deadline).

And I resigned myself to the fact that I would not be volunteering in Sochi after all.

I still have mixed feelings. I look at Sochi as possibly the best chance I would have had to experience the Olympics up close and personal – unless Almaty, Kazakhstan is awarded the Games in the future (it is a candidate), Sochi would have been my only opportunity to utilize my Russian language skills as a volunteer. At the same, I didn’t want to go without knowing the fine print and having confidence that the experience would be mostly positive. Many of you may be wondering if Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law would have prevented me from going and I have to say no. While it has received a lot of attention and criticism, I don’t think boycotting or disrupting the Games is fair to the athletes who have trained their entire lives for perhaps only one shot at a medal. What would have been more likely to keep me away are the security threats. Now, I can only watch from afar and hope that, for everyone’s sakes, everything goes smoothly.

I would still love to volunteer at – or even just attend – an Olympic Games someday. It just won’t be in Sochi.

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23 thoughts on “Why I’m Not in Sochi for the Winter Olympics”

  1. Really interesting to hear about your experiences, Katie. I volunteered at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006 (not even nearly in the same league as the Olympics, but hey, take what you can get!) and they messed me around for months – first I wasn’t successful, then the next day I was.

    We had to go to two different lots of ‘training’ and you couldn’t change the dates you were given. Mine were both on the same day, which I thought was normal. When I got to my training, I was shocked to hear that most people had different days for their training – and these were people who had flown from all over the country to VOLUNTEER. I felt so guilty as someone who lived down the road who could obviously come along to the training on different days. It seemed as if there could be a simple solution to things like that.

    Coordinating such a large number of volunteers must be hard, but come on! Surely these large events should invest a bit more time and money into this sort of thing – in the end, they’re often the sports’ biggest fans and you really don’t want to irk them off. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to two Olympics and one of the main highlights was the friendliness of the volunteers. They definitely pay off.

    1. Cool that you got to have that experience! And yeah, I understand that coordination of volunteers takes a lot of work, but for a major international event when the whole world is watching, they should be making every effort for things to go smoothly. And not responding to emails or providing basic information is just ridiculous.

  2. ah, Katie, and we could be hanging out in Sochi together right now… but to be honest after talking each day to my friends who are there I’m more than glad I’ve decided to stay at home… they arrived on Saturday, no one even cared to check if they got to Sochi in one piece. The wifi didn’t work so they couldn’t contact their team to ask about the training, duties etc. Now they finally started volunteering but apparently first days were so frustrating they considered going back home. They got a flat on the 10th floor in the hotel where the elevator hardly ever works (but to stay on the optimistic side – they say the view is nice;)) They are not allowed to use the kitchen, the room is so small they bump into each other every time they move around (and there’re supposed to be 2 more people living with them in the same room!). Hardly anyone can speak English (they have very basic Russian) so each time when they try to communicate somehow people just run away. apparently getting a damn accreditation was a big problem as no one spoke English there too! that’s just the brief update I got from them but I’m sure I wouldn’t like to be in Sochi if it’s that terrible there… They were laughing that probably village management volunteers (where I was accepted) are renovating the rooms in the very last minute – who knows, maybe that’s the truth 😉

    I got a little bit further in the whole process as I did signed up the agreement but after communicating with them for a while (and not seeing the will on their side to make it as smooth as possible for both sides) I’ve decided I don’t want to spend my time and money on this. First of all they were giving a really bad visa that doesn’t allow you to travel at all! Then they wanted me to be there for 6 weeks (even if my friends are for 3) and there was no talking with them that I can make it for less. When I said that I’m not interested anymore they started emailing me and calling me (I was in South Africa then so didn’t even bother with answering, especially that I’ve already made the decision and told them so), even few days ago I got yet another email inviting me to some training there, in Sochi…

    Another friend of mine also got the email that she’s accepted, signed the agreement and never heard back from them. After lots of emails she finally got the information that she’s on the backup list in village management so we thought that once I’ve decided not to go they’ll contact her but still nothing happened…

    Just yesterday I saw on FB another guy writing that he’s just got a phone call from Sochi asking where he is – but they’ve never sent him an email he’s accepted…

    I get it, they’re busy to coordinate such a huge event, with so many volunteers on different positions etc. But communication is just a basic thing and the first one they should care of! I just keep comparing it all the UEFA football championships where I was volunteering too and of course we were annoyed from time to time but on the communication level everything was really good!

  3. I have some friends working at the Olympics for NBC. I’m thoroughly jealous and they seem to be having a great time and loving the experience there, despite all the stupid tweets saying how horrible Sochi is. I wish I could be there, but I will be in Russia this summer instead.

    1. Not sure I’d call all the tweets stupid – for a city that is supposed to be hosting a major international event to not even have all of the hotels completed when media and athletes begin arriving is pretty bad. Some complaints I’ve seen are minor, but most are worthy of complaining about – no running water, no door knobs, no lights – or rooms not even being available because they aren’t finished. Maybe it is just undue scrutiny, but I don’t recall hearing such things out of any other Olympics.

  4. Woah Katie, this is so crazy! I admit, it would’ve been seriously interesting to have read your experiences about volunteering in Sochi, but just from the application stress alone it seems like the actual Olympics would’ve been a nightmare!

    1. Yeah, it just all seem so disorganized that I had visions of me spending thousands to get there and then not even have an assignment of something to do when I arrived. Or not have a place to stay.

      1. They’re not, for the record. As someone here in Sochi (and this is my third edition of an Olympics) Sochi’s actually done quite well. The American media hype is just sensationalism, in my opinion.

        1. Yeah, things have definitely seemed smooth since the first few days before the games with hotels not being finished and the like. That, to me, still seems inexcusable. But as long as the venues are done and safe and the competitions go off smoothly, that’s what matters. Although it seems the weather may be getting a bit warm the next few days – will be interesting to see how that affects some of the snow sports.

  5. Well, that is a total bummer. It would have been amazing to volunteer at the Olympics and use your Russian again! I really hope that these games come together for the sake of the athletes. It seems a total mess from what the media is portraying.

    1. Yeah, I hope for the athletes’ sake that once things get going the venues and such are all fine. And hopefully it’s not quite as bad as we’re hearing from the media. 🙂

  6. After reading about all of the craziness of unfinished hotels, no running water, manholes with no covers, and the completely disorganized state of Sochi at the moment, I think you are better off staying put in Chicago. Sorry to read about your disappointment, though.

  7. Sounds like you dodged a bullet with this one, Katie! Eek. I hope the games aren’t a total disaster, for the sake of the athletes and spectators, but at the same time, if the Russian government are embarrassed and exposed to be incompetent at organising an international event, then, well, serves them right.

    They’ll learn a few lessons by the time they host the World Cup in 2018. Then again, I watched a football match in Moscow once, and the spectators were hurling racist abuse at foreign players – the country needs an attitude change for sure, but that’s a whole other discussion.

    Anyway, hopefully one day you’ll get to volunteer at an Olympics, or a major sporting event – have you ever volunteered at the US Open or one of the other tennis majors?

  8. I think it was a good decision that you didn’t end up going. It could’ve been a disaster. I am sure the game will be hosting somewhere ‘better organized’ in the future. I missed my chance to volunteer during the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Hong Kong (all equestrian games were in HK) because I was living in the states then. But well, just hope China/Taiwan/Hong Kong/USA have another chance to host the Olympic so I can help!

  9. Sorry to hear about the mess about volunteering – I’m in Sochi now and the Russian volunteers, while lovely, do have some English issues at times. Would have been nice to have a native English speaker around. That said, there seem to be quite a few American volunteers that I’ve run into here, makes me wonder how in the world they navigated it all (because judging by those emails I probably would have done the same as you!)

    1. Yeah, I would be very curious! For me, since I work full-time, I would’ve had to take unpaid time off to go and that made a huge difference in my decision. When I applied, I was traveling and had no idea where I’d be when 2014 rolled around. If I had still been in the midst of my RTW trip or in between jobs, I probably would’ve been more open to giving it a shot despite the apparent disorganization. But paying to go over there and losing up to a month’s salary was just too much to risk without very solid info.

  10. I would be upset if I were you. I can’t beleive how disorganised they are, they are not going to get the most out of all that potential people-power.

    Their loss. Hopefully other oportunity’s come up for you. Chin up I guess.

    🙁

  11. Really interesting article. I heard that there was so much corruption going on at Sochi, like the Russian government contracting out new roads to be built for $200 million per kilometer of road, apparently the most expensive road ever built, simply because the corrupt officials were siphoning off so much of the funds. Anyway, good to hear about your experience.

  12. There would be many opportunities to take part in different projects with less controversies in Russia…

    The world watch olympics but we don’t see what happen beside.
    Let me tell you briefly my experience.
    It was a dream to me to take part in the olympics, I also learn russian language for few years and travelled in the country many time and decided to apply like you two years ago.
    Basically I had the same experience than you concerning the recruiting process.
    I knew slightly late that I could go to Sochi.

    The only difference is that I went there, and I left Sochi before the end.
    I was accepted to work in the mountains, I knew one week before coming that I’ll stay 2 hours away with transportation from my working place, I suppose that appartements were not ready.
    The adress finaly changed one day before arrival and didn’t make it better as I stayed in Adler’s suburbs, in a unfinished “village” for volunteers.
    To drink water from the tap wasn’t adviced and you rather had to buy bottles from a tiny crowded shop near the “residence” where volunteers had to queue up for a while. When you got your water be sure you could not hang around with it because during security checkin to enter a public place they would threw it in the bin… no vodka either 😉 !!
    Of course I turned sick and started to be stressed and anxious.

    ooh yeah, I had also to wait around 6 hours to get my accreditation. Which is maybe not the longest I heard. Volunteers were also set like cattle in the buses…

    I got a bed in a room that was busy by 3 russian guys for two weeks already… I really felt strange coming in their environment in the 15m2..
    How can you work efficiently if you cannot drink, eat and sleep properly?

    I was tired of all this that I didn’t stay until the end. I am not grumpy or angry, it is only my experience, I wonder if other left as well. That was probably not the good moment for me to go. I am also sure that some people had a wonderful experience.

    It was not my first time as volunteer, not first time in Russia either. Probably not the last either.

    Anyway, we learn from everything. Cheer up, there will be better to give and receive.

    Keep going.

  13. What a frustrating experience. There’ve been so many headlines about Sochi being disorganized and ill-prepared for the games but it’s hard to see the whole story from photos and a twitter hashtag. It’s interesting to read about some of that first hand. Such a shame, though!

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