Telegram from Tokyo

Volunteers - the unseen champs of the 2020 Olympics

The writer receiving his press credentials from a senior citizen. Because of Japan's rapidly ageing population, around 15,000 of the 71,000 volunteers are 60 or older. And they go about their duties with such joy. ST PHOTO: DAVID LEE
A Kenyan journalist putting a tribal bracelet on the wrist of a Japanese Self-Defense Forces soldier at the Main Press Centre in Tokyo. ST PHOTO: DAVID LEE
The work the volunteers here do is no less superhuman, even if much more unglam. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - I hope at the end of these Olympics and the upcoming Paralympics, the organisers will hand the 71,000 volunteers a medal, or at least a token of appreciation.

There is no doubt the athletes are the stars of the show. They break records and perform mind-boggling feats.

But the work the volunteers here do is no less superhuman, even if much more unglam.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, a guard stands his ground in the sweltering 35 deg C heat, just a few steps away from the air-conditioned arena, while another patrols an overhead bridge near the Tokyo Aquatic Centre. I was seeing stars after a 30-minute walk; they have eight- to 12-hour shifts.

You may also have seen my colleague Sazali's video of volunteers lining the street to cheerily wave goodbye to swimmers departing on buses late at night.

Others collect tubes with saliva for Covid-19 testing, clean the toilets, and maintain general order. Many of them are so close to the action but do not get to watch the Games.

Yet they all play a big part in bringing Tokyo 2020 to life and making it a success.

Because of Japan's ageing population, around 15,000 of the volunteers are 60 or older.

According to reports, there are 139 people in their 80s and even three in their 90s. I have also seen senior volunteers with a heavy limp or on a wheelchair, and it's really touching to see their willingness and commitment to serve despite the real risk of coronavirus infection.

And they do it with such joy. There are whispers that the Japanese can be strict and inflexible, but I did not encounter these.

I have had 10 volunteers scramble to help me get a taxi at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, one allowed me into the Olympic Village early, while another let me out through a back gate to save me 20 minutes of walking time.

I was also moved by the sight of a Kenyan journalist putting a tribal bracelet on the wrist of a Self-Defence Forces soldier at the Main Press Centre.

And it's great to see the athletes lead the way in appreciating them.

Badminton men's singles champion Viktor Axelsen posted a wefie and paid tribute to them on Instagram.

He wrote: "Thanks to all the volunteers and to everyone who has been a part of this Olympics. Without you, we athletes wouldn't have the chance to compete at the biggest stage. You are all Gold medalists. I'm happy I got the chance to give away a few game shirts to show my appreciation."

Similarly, swimming superstar Katie Ledecky and Singaporean paddler Yu Mengyu thanked the supporting cast such as the volunteers and the media for ensuring the smooth running of the Games and bringing stories, images and footage of the action back home to people who are not able to attend due to the pandemic.

Not all the volunteers are Japanese. The majority are, and some of them may not be fluent or eloquent in English, with their vocabulary restricted to greetings and venue names. But who cares when there is Google Translate and such an infectious positive attitude.

So, arigato gozaimasu!

And like the defiant young man with the rolled-up sleeve at the Main Transport Mall, who turned down my offer of sunblock as he flexed his sun-scorched bicep, said: "Power!"

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