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):
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:
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.