5 Things I Learned While Volunteering in an Olympic City

by Kerianne Baylor

Boarding pass in hand, Olympic-sized smile across your face. You’re as pumped up as Simone Biles is after she lands her out-of-this-world opening tumbling pass in her floor routine. Where are you going? The Rio 2016 Olympics. Why? You’re volunteering in the first ever Latin American Olympic host city, Rio de Janeiro, a cidade maravilhosa. Pinch yourself now because you can’t get any more once-in-a-lifetime than this!

American Olympics volunteer Kerianne Baylor in Rio 2016
Meet Kerianne! She’s fabulous, speaks Portuguese, and reps the USA proudly.

Being a part of an international sporting event of mega-magnitude sounded super enticing to me. So, I applied to volunteer at the Rio Olympics in 2016, hoping for a cross-cultural experience and a behind-the-scenes, insider look at what the Olympic Games are all about.

Truthfully, I did not know what to expect in terms of volunteering. Fast forward to my post-Olympics-volunteer state of mind, I can proudly say that volunteering in an Olympic city will blow all of your expectations out of the water, equip you with stories to last a lifetime, and introduce you to like-minded, global wanderers from around the world.

1. Volunteering is addicting.

Some people are serial volunteers. Same thing goes for serial Olympic fans. They go to one Olympic Games and they’re hooked; so every four years, they jet off to the next location seeking that Olympic energy again and again...and again.

Being a volunteer at the Olympics automatically inserts you into a community of thousands of people willing to help out in any way they can. It means you are an active participant in the Games. You’re not just a spectator.

As a language services volunteer, I was sincerely amazed by the linguistic abilities of my fellow interpreters from Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, and everywhere in between. It’s a beautiful thing to see volunteers trek halfway across the globe to take part in the action.

A group of foreign translators working at the Rio 2016 Olympics
“I was sincerely amazed by the linguistic abilities of my fellow interpreters from Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, and beyond.”

2. Experience is everything.

Volunteering at the Olympics is about jumping right into an incomprehensible amount of organization and literal manpower needed to pull off such a large scale event. You sign up knowing it'll be an irreplaceable experience. And you'll have the full Rio 2016 uniform to serve as the most unique souvenir ever.

Some days, I was cheering along with crazy crowds at the Maracanãzinho volleyball stadium before the mixed-zone madness of journalists interviewing athletes after the game. Other days I was interpreting Portuguese to English in a post-game press conference for USA and Brazil men's volleyball coaches and team captains. And the entire time I was ecstatic to show up to my volunteer shifts uniform clad and so-unbelievably-stoked to stand alongside language-prone rock stars from Bolivia to Iran.

Volunteer positions span a wide variety of duties at the Olympics. From working on the field of play to greeting guests to interpreting for athletes and press, volunteers are tasked with anything and everything. You could be directing crowds, retrieving and passing the ball to athletes, or even providing medical attention to Olympians; it all depends on your special skills, or even just your willingness to be thrown into the mix to aid in any way you can.

3. Adventure extends beyond the Games.

Exploring the Games means snagging tickets to watch events, but it also means taking advantage of the Olympic host city. Rio is a traveler’s dream: mountain hikes, colorful architecture, jaw-dropping lookout spots, to-die-for food, and the always-necessary caipirinha. Hitting up must-see tourist spots means tons of other people have the same idea, including athletes, because they’re everywhere. From towering volleyball players to strong gymnasts, brushing shoulders with Olympians can happen anywhere, any time.

The activities were endless, especially in Rio. It was 24 hours of Olympic events side-by-side with Samba clubs, impromptu street parties, overflowing bars in Lapa, and breathtaking views from Pão de Açúcar and Cristo Redentor.

Overwhelmingly exciting and undeniably fun, prancing around the Olympic host city, whether you were watching the events live or not, is an unbeatable experience.
Skyhigh view of an Olympic field
Be a part of the athletic magic in 2018, 2020, or 2022!

4. Oh-so-amazing Olympic spirit.

Brazil is a celebration paradise, so hosting an Olympic sporting event placed people from all over the world next to Samba rhythms and around-the-clock partying. The Olympic spirit continued into the wee hours of the next day in the streets, at Hospitality Houses and pretty much everywhere else.

When heading out to the Olympic Park, dressing up like a superfan is significantly more fun. Covering yourself in patriotic gear can mean engaging in fun-spirited, sporting event activities, not limited to taking pics with similarly-dressed superfans and pretty much everyone who walks by you thinking you look awesome, or being interviewed by TV stations. Just check out the Olympic “Selfie King” superfan who was decked out in a stars-and-stripes, American flag onesie, and spent the Olympics snapping selfies with athletes, like Michael Phelps, the entire USA Gymnastics team, and Kassidy Cook, and snagging interviews with NBC. He did the whole dress-head-to-toe-in-USA-gear right, as well as participating in the pin trading tradition.

Trading pin culture is real and it transcends language barriers. Simply pointing to someone else's pin is mutually understood by both parties as “Hey! Wanna trade?!”

Pro tip: Come to the Olympics with pins in tow; you'll leave with an entire collection of lembranças (memories).

5. Patriotic pride is powerful.

Being the first Latin American country to host the Olympics put a lot of pressure on Brazil. Despite facing tough political, economic, and health situations, it felt like Brazil charged ahead to open its heart and soul to the world.

No matter which team was playing at the volleyball stadium, the Brazilian pride was evident. Inflatable, monster-sized hands were waved around, catchy cheers filled the stadium, and yellow and green jerseys speckled the stands. And when Brazil played, it was insane.

American Olympics volunteer Kerianne Baylor in Rio 2016
Kerianne has plenty to smile about as she gets up-close-and-personal with the action.

To have confronted so many problems on the world stage under the international spotlight, Brazil showed up, flag in hand, and boasted some of the most unbelievably incredible Olympic moments, including Neymar’s winning penalty shot and judoka Rafaela Silva’s history-making gold medal. And to add to the “firsts” of this year’s Summer Olympics, it was the first time a team of stateless refugees competed. Amazing, (right)

Phelps may be retired, after getting his 28th shiny Olympic medal no less, but my Olympic journey is just beginning. I challenged myself linguistically while simultaneously meeting countless amazing volunteers and exploring a city unlike any I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. Being a volunteer at the Rio 216 Olympics exposed me to an energy that is best witnessed in person rather than watching on TV. And the fact that the Japanese Prime Minister dressed up as Mario at the Closing Ceremony can only be foreshadowing for Tokyo 2020 excitement.

Ready to volunteer at the next Olympics?