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How to be an Olympian without qualifying

“The Winter Olympics always held a certain magic for me. An inaccessible dream. In the last few months, the dream became a reality and I saw first hand what it takes to make the magic happen.”

As the years crept by and aching bones replaced the spring in my step and fear replaced confidence, I came to terms with the fact that I would never be an Olympian. But two years ago the opportunity to volunteer at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang arose and I wasn’t going to miss it. The Winter Olympics always held a certain magic for me. An inaccessible dream. In the last few months, the dream became a reality and I saw first hand what it takes to make the magic happen.

 My wife and I planned, discussed and saved for years in order to take a sabbatical from work, with the Winter Olympics being the cherry on the top. We arrived in Seoul at the end of five months of traveling: snorkels, vests and shorts still packed from the previous countries. They were unlikely to get much use with reports of -20 degrees Celsius from PyeongChang. We spent an eventful night in Seoul, before traveling east on the new KTX train towards PyeongChang (mountain cluster) and Gangneung (coastal cluster). It was supposed to just be a quiet evening meal followed by purchasing a local SIM card for our phones; unfortunately, after all the previous months I chose that evening to depart company with my passport. We canceled the early morning KTX and rebooked for later in the day, allowing me to return to the phone shop and to my delight find my passport still sitting on the scanner.

 Uniforms acquired, we were bussed to our shabby dormitory accommodation, almost an hour and a half from PyeongChang and promptly told that we could not share a room or even a building. Having arrived late in the evening, our respective 21-year-old Korean roommates had already taken the bottom bunks, maybe I was starting to feel younger again. The pre-games build up is the busiest period for many of the volunteers, in particular, our roles as National Olympic Committee (NOC) Assistants. The smooth arrival, check-in, and acclimatisation of athletes and delegations is a 24hour role. So it was no surprise that with a lack of proper sanitation, nor a diet other than rice with kimchi and buses to our accommodation arriving late or not turning up at all…people started to get ill. The dreaded norovirus. With years of training and lives dedicated to the next few weeks of competition, the health of the athletes could not be risked and we were all put into quarantine.

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 An agonising four days passed, with each stomach rumble we expected the worst…but we passed the less than pleasant medical tests and eventually could return to work having never felt ill. The games had begun, the accommodation began to provide us with the basics such as bottled water and hand soap, plus only two athletes out of 2,922 had fallen ill. A relative success, as they had enough time to recover before their competition. Although the impact on training must have been significant.

 In the most part, spirits remained high. The majority of volunteers took on this role to get closer to the games than they otherwise could and that’s exactly what we did. So close in fact that in a way it normalised the status of the athletes. Chatting with them about training, when their parents were coming out and on one occasion discussing how to spray paint their helmet in time for the competition. They became more like colleagues than the world’s best in their chosen disciplines. We fixed televisions, carried equipment, drove athletes to venues, arranged passes for various family members and even had to arrange the facilities team to unblock toilets, amongst many other mostly simple tasks. For me, despite this being an amazing situation to find myself in as part of an Olympic team, it actually felt like some of the magic had been taken away. I could see the chaos behind the scenes of organising such a global event. The Winter Olympics had become a series of administrative challenges to be overcome each day rather than the awe-inspiring spectacle I had dreamt about as a child.

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As the days raced by, competitions finished and some athletes and delegates left early there seemed to be fewer challenges each day. NOC’s were now more relaxed and already comfortable with their surroundings and transport options. So we had more time to be spectators again. The penultimate day of competition was the Men’s Snowboard Big Air Final. The first time the sport had been included in the Winter Olympics. British Athlete Billy Morgan had qualified for the final, but we watched agonisingly as he landed on his backside time after time in the practice runs minutes before the event. He was flat on his back, the team unsure how to help at this point…the disappointment was clear that he felt he might not be able to compete. Hauling himself up he had one more practice run…another crash and practice time was up. Competition time.

The event consists of three runs, each scored out of 100, with your best two runs being added together. First run went as the training predicted, sliding to a stop on the snow at the bottom of the landing. Two runs left and both will count now… the second run he put down an 82.50 and third run an 85.50 having landed a triple cork front-side 1440 mute & tail grab (translation: four spins, three flips and two grabs), a trick he was yet to land in any competition. He found himself in third position. As the next competitors jumped and failed to beat his score the tension rose until there were no more riders at the top. He had secured a bronze medal in the inaugural Olympic Big Air and yet with true Olympic spirit he was first to commiserate the riders that had also tried new tricks and not quite managed to land them. The magic was back.

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Being part of the organisation of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Many of the volunteers I’ve met have returned to volunteer at the Olympics time and time again and without their hard work for no financial reward, the Olympics wouldn’t be possible. Volunteering gave me unprecedented access to the sporting superstars I’ve watched and supported over the years. Now I know though, that for me the magic is not in organisation or the backstage admin, but in the spirit of competition and watching the worlds best at their best. Roll on Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022…be it live or from the sofa, I’ll be watching, cheering and glad that I don’t have to call the facilities team afterward to arrange anything.

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Matthew Evans

Matthew is currently on a seven month sabbatical from his day job in London. He and his wife have weaved a trail through many countries from New Zealand up to South Korea, where he is currently volunteering at the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Skiing and snow sports are his passion and as an ex-ski instructor, being part of the Olympics has been a dream since childhood.

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