GUEST POST: Being part of the collective: volunteering at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth Games only happened in Birmingham because of 14,000 volunteers. Liz Marsden spent her time polishing her comms skills as one of that army of people who gave their time.

Early in 2021, my partner of the best part of 20 years passed away. That was a huge point in my life. Like many people who have been in the same situation, the first few months were a rollercoaster of emotions, but I’m not going to dwell on that, that’s just the context for what’s to follow…

In the middle of the year, about four months after the event, the call for volunteers to join the Games was released, and one evening, admittedly after a glass of wine, I decided that nothing ventured, nothing gained and wrote an application (thankfully, video evidence wasn’t required…)! It turns out that 45,000 other people also applied.

The process of being selected

Later that year, I had the ‘we’d like you to come for an interview’ email. I’d made it through the initial shortlist, and down to 25,000 or so. This happened in November (after a few failed attempts at getting there – the interviews were in Birmingham, I’m based in West Yorkshire). And the “we’d like you to be part of our Games as part of the “Commonwealth Collective” and this is your role” email landed, after what seemed like an eternity and multiple refreshes of the workforce portal a day for about a week in mid February.

Game on. (Along with 14,000 others)…

My task during the Games

My role – Media Operations, Mixed Zone. Erm…. What?

I could guess at the first bit thankfully, but ‘a mixed zone’? Not having done a major event like this before, that was a new term to me.

Turns out, there were four standard media roles:

  • Team member looking after the press tribunes at the individual sports.
  • Flash quote reporters Getting interviews with the athletes post-match and filing for national and international journalists to use.
  • Photo team member Both taking and looking after photographers on the field of play.
  • Mixed zone Essentially making sure that, as much as possible, the journalists in the post-match area got the interviews they wanted and liaising with the team attaches.

So, fast forward a few months, role training followed – most of the media ops volunteers weren’t media people, the excitement of the uniform unveiling, the venue training a week before the Games opened – I was based at the NEC – and the first shift.

In between February and July, there were various Facebook groups set up by volunteers to support each other. Fielding countless questions around transport, uniform fitting, accommodation and hundreds of other enquiries is no small time commitment, I’ll warn anyone else! But thankfully, a small group of us banded together to admin them.

My first stint was on the last Saturday in July (Day 2 of the Games), then a break until the Wednesday, through every day to Sunday. 6 days in all.

First day nerves

I still got first day nerves (even at my ripe age!) Thought they’d have gone away by now, but no, they seemed to be omnipresent. But as the Games went on, you realised you were part of a family, and to be part of that was something special.

As I write this, my stint at the Games has just finished, and there’s a few reflections in case you’re still reading.

Liz’s Games volunteer story in numbers

  • 6 days of volunteering
  • 65,000 steps
  • 1000+ miles of driving there and back from Yorkshire
  • 1000s of people waved at, met and said hello to
  • 100s of athletes of all nations from the Commonwealth seen
  • Countless memories made.

What struck me

Being part of something

For most people, being a volunteer was the opportunity to be part of something special. I didn’t mind that I was making tea for international journalists one minute and shepherding international athletes the next through the media zones.

I was just happy to do my bit, as one of more than 14,000 of the ‘Commonwealth Collective’ of volunteers, without whom, the Games wouldn’t be possible.

However, for some people, the experience wasn’t what they wanted or expected – it happens.

These are real jobs

The jobs in volunteering at a major sporting event are as real as any job outside. And most are done while the Games are on by unpaid volunteers with a few paid ‘team’ who work from well before the Games actually start, and don’t finish for a long while yet. But that doesn’t matter. Everyone wore the same uniform and received the same respect as each other.

There were volunteer drivers, people to welcome athletes at airports people who provided information and directions, people with megaphones (lots of these), people who worked on the field of play like the ones who put the hurdles out on the track and field events, people who worked backstage, people who looked after the rest of the volunteers, medical help, and hundreds of other roles.

On the first day I met one of the flash quote reporters at the netball, who is at Uni and an aspiring sports journalist. He got to interview some of the top players in the world down in the media pens. That’s what volunteering is all about. Made my heart sing to see the opportunities being offered, and taken.

Some unique experience

At the Games, I had some really unique opportunities – I was based with the Netball and got to see lots of matches from some of the best seats in the house, but worked backstage afterwards to link up athletes with the various media outlets that wanted interviews, so also missed some of the best moments.

Never again, in my lifetime, I suspect, will the Commonwealth Games be held in Birmingham. I had no connection to the city before I started this stint, but it will have a place in my heart from here on in.

Birmingham, I love you

By the way, Birmingham, you looked amazing! As a comms person who normally works in the fields of regeneration and economy, seeing so much colour around the city, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the persuading it must have taken the planning department. And I admit to taking photos of coloured bollards, columns and various bits of buildings to show just what can be done.

What volunteering can give you

If you’ve a mind to spare a few hours, or be part of something bigger, my advice would be to go for it. There’s always plenty of local opportunities, or why not search out those special events in areas that you’re interested in: I think the volunteering selection for the Paris Olympics opens later this year.

Returning to the life-change I referred to at the start of this, the volunteering stint has taught me a lot. It gave me something to focus on when times were rough. It gave me a new outlet to find new friends. It gave me the confidence to dance in public – not sure how that happened – and it gave me another outlet to learn from.

Volunteers come from all walks of life though there were a lot of teachers there. You just never know who you’re going to bump into next and what their take on life is.

Volunteering is what you make it. It’s yours to make it as special as you want it to be.

Liz Marsden is strategic communications lead (economy and place) at North East Lincolnshire Council.

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