Saturday 22 July 2017

Step forward...World Para Athletics come to London

I've done a bit of volunteering in my time.  Not much, just a little bit.  I've bored everyone to tears with tales from the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, planting Poppies and unplanting them again at the Tower, marshalling at the Tour de France and most recently I helped a poverty charity during the General Election.  In the last week I've been a volunteer at the World Para Athletics Championships in London.  You can get a bit arrogant, or elitist about volunteering, so when I was offered a role at the Uniform Distribution Centre my heart sank...after all handing out uniforms to other volunteers hardly sounded exciting or glamorous.  But how wrong can I be, how much humble pie can I eat.  I learnt more about people in the two weeks than I think I have in the last 56 years.  I need to capture these memories before they fade.

I was with a team of people who inevitably came from so many walks of life that I have never really encountered before.  Ethnically, culturally, socially, intellectually and emotionally there was a complete cross-section of the population.  I had to quickly learn that my experience of working in a lively, robust environment does not work well everywhere...even when your making a joke about blaming others for something that has gone wrong (incorrect size item in a bag) does not go down well in a 'no-blame culture' and amongst people who have higher levels of sensitivity than me. Helping people who did not have the same grasp of the tasks turned from being a bit of a chore to a challenge to something I got real satisfaction from.  Working somewhere I have no power, no authority was an experience for a few shifts, and helped me enormously to understand how people who have to do that all the time feel.  Having conversations with people who have such a different background, different beliefs and different outlooks on life to me was incredibly invigorating and life-affirming.

I discovered that some people have no concept of their body size - enormous people asking for small uniforms and vice versa; people who have genuine body issues; people who, for whatever reason, are miserable; people who are happy and positive again for whatever reason; people arrive looking for a fight even before they start; people who think they deserve to be treated like a VIP because they area volunteer; people who are so chilled and relaxed you warm to them immediately.

Having handed out all the uniforms, I was moved to the practice track where you are exposed to athletes from all over the world.  Many from some of the poorest countries on the planet.  All are disabled in some way.  Yet here they are titans...their achievements remarkable.  More importantly, they are people just like you or me...the same hopes, fears, the same need to be acknowledged as a person.  I was shifting the throwing frames (the stools they sit on and get strapped into for when they do shot-putt, etc).  Each one is individually made...and when you come from a very poor country that means made out of scrap metal possibly badly welded in the back streets of a dusty town..yet the athlete has overcome the challenges and made it to the competition.  Phenomenal.  Chatting with the athletes, being careful with my humour to engage them was immeasurable fun and challenging. Doing something worthwhile for these people was fabulous.

I came away exhausted after long, emotionally, intellectually and physically demanding shifts...but it was like walking on air.  The best thing I've done for a long time...and I hope the lessons have been firmly embedded in my psyche!