Political games begin over volunteers at Winter Olympics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2008, 12:00am


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If you are an athlete, getting to the Olympics takes years of training and a considerable investment in money.

A faster way to get to the Games is by becoming a volunteer.

With the 2010 Winter Games a mere two years away, the search for the volunteers who are crucial to any Olympic Games is on in earnest.

So while carrying the Olympic torch in BC Place Stadium at the start of the Games in February 2010 may be out of reach for most of us, you can still apply to be the person whose job it is to make sure the flame does not go out. The official flame-watcher is just one of the 19,000 volunteers needed for the Winter Olympics. A further 6,000 will be needed for the Paralympics.

'Next to the athletes, volunteers are perhaps the most important participants in the 2010 Winter Games,' said John Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver Organising Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

While volunteering is a noble enough cause, the British Columbia government has raised a ruckus by announcing that civil servants will be paid for their time if they choose to sign up as 'volunteers'.

The provincial government, which is the largest employer in British Columbia with 30,000 civil servants, says the plan is intended to foster good relations with its employees. Civil servants who are accepted as volunteers will take half of their time as vacation and the other half as paid leave.

Maureen Bader, a director with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which advocates lower taxes and lower government spending, said it did not make sense to pay civil servants for work that others were donating. 'Anything with an Olympic tag on it automatically gets money,' Ms Bader said.

The provincial opposition New Democratic Party is also denouncing the plan to pay volunteers who work for the government. In 1994, when the NDP was in power, the government allowed civil servants to be paid while volunteering at the Commonwealth Games.

But what troubles Harry Bains, the party's chief Olympics critic, is the unknown cost of paying volunteers. The provincial government - and therefore the taxpayer - is responsible for any cost overruns from the Olympics.

The ruling Liberals have maintained that the Games are being managed responsibly but admit the government does not know how much it will all cost. Premier Gordon Campbell has said it will be reasonable.

Many major employers are also expected to pay staff who volunteer at the Games on company time, although they are under no obligation to do so.

The government quashed the idea that thousands of civil servants would volunteer for the 2010 Games, with the premier saying only about 200 would be allowed.

But it's not as if there will be any shortage of private-sector volunteers. Already applications have been pouring in from across Canada, as well as 24 other countries, for the 25,000 positions available.

Not all the jobs are as glamorous as that of flame-watcher. Volunteers are also needed as cleaners and housekeepers.

Within a day of the website advertising the positions going online, more than 10,000 visitors had checked it out and organisers have no doubt they will get the numbers.

The number of civil servants who have applied is not yet known.