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Recruiting volunteers for 2020 Tokyo Games a challenging task

Mizuki Odaka, center, recently joined her fellow city volunteers for the 2020 Tokyo Games in Chiba's Mihama Ward. (Mainichi)

CHIBA -- The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics has some historic firsts, and one of them is the number of volunteers the games will need -- a staggering 110,000. Their recruitment will start in September this year, but the organizing committee and local governments hosting Olympic events see it as a challenge.

The organizers will try to attract some 80,000 "games volunteers" who will serve as guides at competition venues or support event operations, while the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will make efforts to recruit as many as 30,000 "city volunteers" that will help visiting tourists.

The arrangements for volunteers were modeled after the 2012 London Games, which was supported by some 78,000 volunteers. Tokyo will need more support staff, say organizers, because it will host a record number of 339 events in 33 sports in a wider area of nine prefectures including Tokyo. As other cities and towns hosting competitions will seek volunteers, the total number is expected to be even larger.

But the public's views on the system for volunteers include some harsh voices. When the working conditions for the games volunteers were announced, a tweet exclaimed, "The volunteers' conditions are like sweatshops," while another criticized the recruitment drive as "an exploitation of enthusiasm."

The organizers requested volunteers to work for around eight hours a day for a total of 10 days or more. The conditions were based on those at London and other games, but they apparently sounded too demanding for some. In response, the organizing committee set up a panel of experts to re-examine working conditions, which came up with a more flexible arrangement of working for five consecutive days or shorter covering commuting costs between volunteers' accommodations and their working venues.

The city of Chiba east of Tokyo is leading the nation in hiring city volunteers. The municipality held a training session on July 21, and Mizuki Odaka, 20, a third-year university student, took part. "The games being held in Japan could be a once in a lifetime event. It means a lot to me to try new things," she eagerly commented.

Odaka, whose legs have been disabled since her birth, uses a wheelchair. She applied to become a city volunteer leader in February this year. "I am often helped by people around me, so I want to help others too," she explained of her motivation. Odaka also wanted to try out her Spanish she is studying at a university. It still doesn't feel real that she will be serving as a volunteer in the 2020 games, but "I want to create moments that foreign visitors and people with disabilities can enjoy," she said.

An April poll by the Nippon Foundation Volunteer Support Center of 3,800 men and women in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures found that 57 percent of them wanted to join the volunteer program for the Tokyo Games. Associate professor Masaya Ninomiya of Bunkyo University, who serves as an adviser to the center and a member of the volunteer review panel of the organizing committee, said, "I assume many people want to be part of it, but it's another story if the conditions presented by the organizers meet their requirements."

For working adults, it is not easy to get many days off from work to serve as volunteers, and students have difficulty imagining what kind of life they will be leading in two years' time. An organizing committee official said, "We will try to find people who are keen." The committee is poised to strengthen its outreach toward universities and corporations in a bid to deepen their understandings of the volunteer program. Attracting volunteers is a major challenge needed to be overcome for the games' success.

(Japanese original by Miaki Tsuburaya, Sports News Department)

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