Volunteering: What's in it for you?
Become a volunteer and you too can be drenched from head to toe by some of Britain's finest Olympic prospects.
That's one of many lessons I took from a day helping out at the Hyde Park Triathlon at the weekend, having pledged to discover what volunteers actually get out of the experience.
There will be up to 70,000 positions for volunteers at London 2012 - who will go by the moniker "Games Makers" - and those places are expected to be heavily oversubscribed, with hundreds of thousands having already registered their interest.
Ahead of 2012 there are dozens more Olympic sporting occasions in Britain, including test events for each sport, which UK Sport says will need more than 10,000 volunteers (and may prove handy on the CV if you want to be a part of the Olympics).
But what makes people give up their spare time, at their own cost? Why is volunteering at the Games so popular, and what can you expect if you actually do get to volunteer in two years time at 2012, or before that? I donned my bright red volunteer's t-shirt to find out.
The triathlon in Hyde Park, one of the sport's seven World Championship Series stages, attracts hundreds of amateur triathletes from all over the world, and is a big draw for tourists and casual spectators who happen across it on a day out.
Sunday's drama, where British favourite Alistair Brownlee collapsed over the finish as Spanish rival Javier Gomez held off Jonny Brownlee for victory, rewarded those who lined the route, and underlined Hyde Park's promise to be one of London 2012's busiest and most spectacular venues.
But the nature of the events here means organisers must bring in a large number of volunteers to keep competitors and the crowd safe, happy and informed.
Ahead of my day's work on Saturday I received an information pack containing detailed maps of the venue, schedules and a handbook including a brief overview of my role.
The most noticeable feature of this was my start time - six o'clock in the morning. On a Saturday. That was the first time I questioned the allure of this activity. Much as doing good on behalf of others is a nice feeling, not at six o'clock it isn't, surely?
As it turned out, walking through Hyde Park in the morning half-light was a treat, and by the time I'd been given my t-shirt and walked to my first job, I'd forgotten the time. Things were too interesting.
The transition zone, for those of you who - like me - cannot claim to be enthusiastic amateur triathletes, is the area where triathletes change between swimming, cycling and running, in that order.
Swimmers waddle up one lane into the zone, find their bikes, lose their wetsuits and romp off onto the cycling course. A little later, our saddlesore have-a-go heroes ease themselves back into the zone, ditch the bikes and trot gamely back out in search of the finish line.
My job? Guard this place. Every triathlete needs to come in before the race to stash their kit in its appointed slot so that, later, dozens of them can grab their bikes at the same time without carnage ensuing. But the zone must also be secure, so no bikes or wetsuits go missing, and - with triathletes heading off in "start waves" every 10 minutes for three hours - those finishing and collecting their kit must be kept clear of those still racing.
For the first three hours, there were two of us manning the entrance and exit, and all was well. Then, at around 9.30am, my team-mate went off to help another colleague dealing with the "check-out" (finishers wanting to leave the zone with their kit, pictured), and I found myself alone.
The next 180 minutes passed in a blur. Since every triathlete must stow his or her bike before starting, and collect it at the end, it's not much of an exaggeration to say I met every person taking part in the race.
Roughly one in five had questions. Some we had been briefed to expect, such as: Can my family come in with me? No. Can I use that toilet? Only if you're a competitor. Should I wear a wetsuit? Up to you.
Other queries were more flummoxing. One gentleman wanted to tie what amounted to a pink feather boa around his bike saddle, to make it more visible when he came to find it during the race. Denied. Another lady, in all seriousness, asked me: "I said I'd meet my friend after the race. Where is she?"
At just after noon I was given a break for lunch and replaced by another red-shirted sentinel. But I was soon back in action, mixing it with triathlon's finest as an aid station assistant for the women's elite race, featuring top Briton Helen Jenkins.
Aid stations are essentially points where competitors take on water. The theory goes that you open a batch of bottles - under the watchful eye of a technical officer to ensure you don't tamper with them - then line them up next to you (pictured) and hold them out for athletes to take as they run past.
In practice, having opened your batch, you merrily hold the first one out and a triathlete rips your arm off.
The force with which they take the bottle can't be overestimated; they plough through your hand and if you don't let go of that bottle, you're going with it.
However, even letting go is sometimes not enough. Since the athletes are travelling at pace, collecting the bottle safely is a bit of a fine art, and not all have mastered it. Hence, some go flying into the distance, either into the face of the volunteer behind you or into an unsuspecting crowd.
If that were the only thing to watch out for, that'd be fine. But a second menace arrives in the form of triathletes discarding used - or more often, still half-full - water bottles. They don't have time to watch what they're doing. No, they just hurl them to one side at full throttle, to explode on impact with whatever they hit. Usually you.
One triathlete in particular, who is lucky I didn't catch her name, flung her used bottle straight into a queue of 20 full ones I'd painstakingly arranged on the table. They leapt into the air like watery grenades and landed, with mind-numbing inevitability, on me.
In other words, this was incredible fun. If I had been told volunteering at sporting events could take on theme-park water-fight characteristics, I would have signed up long ago.
Triathletes or water station volunteers? Photo: Getty Images
Not that this is necessarily representative. The water station gig was easy street compared to the transition zone, and I suspect guarding the crossing points (where you hold spectators back until they can cross the course safely) is a long day at the office. You may get given a short shift, but you could be expected to work for nine hours or more, and your job may not involve water fights with Olympians.
One volunteer who performed the same transition zone role as me, but a day later, did so for at least nine hours with no break and no relief, nor the chance to try any other tasks. If you're enjoying your job then that may not be a problem, but it's worth being aware that you could face the prospect of long days performing a role that may be monotonous.
And if other volunteers fail to turn up - entirely possible, given there's no way to ensure people honour their offers to help out - then you may find your area understaffed and your work all the more demanding. Extra pairs of hands on the day cannot be magicked out of thin air.
Marie, a teacher manning the water station alongside me, turned out to be a volunteering veteran having flown to the Athens Games in 2004 (paying for her own accommodation and flights - the organisers won't do that for you). She spent six-hour days helping journalists find the right buses at one of the venues, and bought tickets for other events on her days off.
"I've not really had any bad experiences volunteering," she told me. "The worst was turning up in Athens and still having no idea what I was doing, because the Greeks were so laid-back about it. But I knew they'd tell me eventually, once I got there."
It's a hackneyed phrase when it comes to this subject, but the people with whom I volunteered truly did represent a cross-section of society, covering at least a 40-year age span. Many were triathlon fanatics or simply interested in sport in general, and some were volunteering as a way to stay involved after injuries.
Each group - the transition zone mob, the hapless water station frogmen and others - had a team leader overseeing things, and the level of instruction and care was generally good, especially if you were prepared to ask questions to be absolutely sure.
I can't lie, the first six hours of manning the transition zone were hard work, occasionally bordering on overwhelming: a 12-year-old with nothing to identify her as a competitor is on the verge of tears because she's late for the aquathlon, at the same time as a dozen finished triathletes are trying to get back in to claim their gear, and you're on your own.
But equally, those situations are a thrill because you're out engaging with people, helping to improve their day. Most gratifying of all were the many occasions on which competitors stopped as they left and said: "Thanks for everything, today."
In some cases, I hadn't even spoken to them before. They still had the courtesy to realise that without volunteers, this event would not exist, and far more people than I'd imagined took the time to express gratitude. It made the early start, punishing heat and nine hours of standing worthwhile.
Scott, the team leader at our water station and a policeman by trade, was doing this kind of thing back at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester eight years ago, and knows exactly why he is involved.
"Why wouldn't you want to do this when the Olympics are coming to your home country?", he asked me. Like others I spoke to, he is building a formidable volunteering résumé ahead of the anticipated bun-fight for places at 2012. However, others were lending a hand for the first time. It is not too late.
And you never know. In two years' time, someone might hit you in the face with a bottle of water on their way to an Olympic gold medal. One to tell the grandkids.
Beginners' tips for volunteering:
Are you a seasoned volunteer? Got tips and experiences, good or bad, to share? Please post a comment. For now, here are a few of mine.
1. Remember you're representing an organisation
It's easy to forget you're a temporary ambassador for an entire sport, but the shirt you're wearing marks you out as someone who can help. Make sure you follow instructions, know what's happening and where, and don't be afraid to query things if you need to, or ask for help.
2. Look after yourself
While you do have a team leader responsible for you, they often have plenty on their plate. Make sure you're dressed appropriately for the weather, and it's a good idea to bring a bag with things which might help - for example, scissors or sun lotion. Organisers will give you water and many supply food too, but bring extra if you like.
3. Target your volunteering
Try to find a job that suits you. What skills do you have to offer, and how might they transfer to a sporting event? If you're good with admin, you might be able to help with results, or with checking equipment in and out. If you're a people person, roles like manning entrances or crossing-points will require patience and an ability to communicate.
Apply your knowledge of the sport in question, too: a man named Guido, alongside me in the transition zone, used his own experience as a triathlete to advise on bikes and wetsuits as anxious competitors turned up. Putting people at ease ahead of a big event is a major plus.
4. Come armed with initiative
Team leaders can't be everywhere at once and may miss problems, and solutions, that appear obvious to you. It's OK to tweak things yourself - we took it upon ourselves to double the number of volunteers checking out equipment when the queue took on mammoth proportions. Many minor quandaries, an example from the triathlon being desperate non-competitors asking to use the transition zone loo, can be solved with a bit of common sense.
5. It isn't a free ticket
If you put your name down to volunteer in the belief it's a free pass to the event in question, you will be disappointed. Many volunteers won't even be able to see the action from their post, let alone enjoy it. You are there to do a job and not all of those jobs will be glamorous.
But, if you don't see the action, you will still (and this surprised me) get the buzz of being part of the event. And a free t-shirt, probably. What more do you want?
If you want to find out more about volunteering at the Olympics, the official London 2012 website has full details. September 2010 is the month in which the applications process for "general roles" at the Games begins.