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James O'Brien's Blog

VFS and the Nature of Olympians

Wednesday, August 8th

It’s starting to happen. It always does. The same thing, at every Olympic Games. It’s inevitable. VFS, otherwise known as “volunteer fatigue syndrome.” 

There are many elements that have to coalesce in order for an Olympic Games to take place. The athletes, the spectators, the sponsors, television, the organizing committees and many, many more. Put them all together and they’ll still be missing the vital element that has to be present for it all to work: the volunteers. Without them, it’s like trying to make fire without oxygen. 

 The volunteers are the people that do every single job, from directing visitors, to picking up garbage, to checking credentials, to delivering results to the press, to selling souvenirs. You couldn’t afford to pay them all - there are 70,000 of them - so they don’t. The volunteers do it for the privilege of being part of the experience that is the Olympic Games. Volunteers were first called into service in 1948, here in London for the first post-War Games. These days, they’re the glue that holds the whole thing together. They call them “Games Makers,” and rightly so.

But, they work like slaves for two weeks straight, round the clock, and it takes a toll. I got on the train yesterday; there were two volunteers seated across from me. They were fast asleep. This was at 2pm. The bloke who appears to be Chief Games Maker in the area where I sit each day was just expounding to me about what a privilege it is to be working here. He’s a high school headmaster. 

“Where do you live?”I asked. Nosey. I forget where he said, but it was a town that I don’t know. “Is that South London?” says I. “Northamptonshire,” says he. Bloody hell. That’s hours away. Upon further nosiness, he revealed that, to get here, he has to drive for an hour to the train station, take the train for another hour or more, walk to another train station, take that to Stratford, where the Games are, and walk some more. I’ve been moaning about having to walk 20 minutes from Stratford station to my seat.

At the end of two weeks of this kind of toil, they’re exhausted; but, here in London, they’re also a cast of characters. (East London is known for its colorful characters). Among the crew welcoming visitors to Olympic Park each day, many are armed with megaphones. This morning, one of them questioned the arriving hoards, “Are you excited to be here?” The response was raucous. “You’re much better than this morning’s crowd,” he replied. “They were rubbish.”

Today’s NYAC action was, again, back in the water polo pool. The US men, and it’s nine NYAC members, were in the quarter-finals, in a game versus Croatia. This was never going to be easy. Put it this way: Croatia was in Group A. They played five games. They won five games. They scored 50 goals. They conceded 29 goals, a goal differential of +21. Only Serbia has a better goal differential (+31). The USA, in Group B, has won three, lost two, scored 43 goals and conceded 44. That makes -1. Like I said, not easy. But the USA claimed the silver medals in Beijing, and six of these guys were on that team (and John Mann was the alternate); so, let’s just say that they weren’t about to be intimidated by stats or reputations. 

At poolside, US coach Terry Schroeder is doing his usual; which is to say, look mad about something, anything. Schroeder reminds me of a cross between Joe Walsh of the Eagles
and David Soul. (Hutch, or maybe Starsky. I always get them mixed up). The game begins. At this stage, everybody knows that every match-up is a final. You’ve got to win. Lose, and it's, "Goodbye Games. Hello Heathrow."

It’s Croatia who puts the first one on the board, though, which they do with the game barely 90 seconds old. A second follows mid-way through the quarter, a real bullet that goes through the upraised hands of goalkeeper Merrill Moses. Fair play to him - he would have needed Spiderman hands to stop that one. That’s the way it stays to the break, 2-0 to Croatia. Schroder’s not looking like an Eagle or a Hutch right
now; more like a James Bond. If he had the license, he’d use it.

The second quarter starts and the Croats stick another one in the back of the net. And another. Moses makes a couple of lovely saves, but there’s not much he can do against the onslaught he’s suffering. The Croats hammer in another and, half way though the second quarter, Croatia has scored five and the US has still to make a mark. This, I will say, is not looking encouraging. If there’s consolation to be drawn, it’s got to be in the fact that these guys are other-worldly. The US calls a time out; momentum disrupted, but it makes little difference. Play resumes, Croatia continues to pepper the US goal, thankfully to no avail. Tony Azevedo and the boys produce some nice ball play in the Croatian half, but they can’t pierce that defense. On the point of half time, the Croatian keeper makes a beautiful save, which brings the second quarter to an end. 

Hard to know what to say about this one. That journo who told me yesterday, “...they will play Croatia and that is not a good thing,” was not joking. As the second half begins, the US goes on a rampage. Time to open the WA. They assault the Croat goal area, but the Boys from the Balkans are deadly at shot blocking. After two minutes, though, the aggression pays off, and the US finally hits one home: 5-1. Another total fireball doesn’t get past the Croatian keeper, who brandishes his fist. Whatever. The US comes back and blasts another one in. 5-2. Times are tense but the tide may be turning. I’ve always adored alliteration, actually.

Another US assault is picked off and Croatia calls a time out. That made a difference. Now it’s 6-2. And 7-2. The US gets a penalty as the third quarter ends. Azevedo blasts it home, but it’s disallowed. I can’t figure that one out. Neither, apparently, can Coach Schroeder. We’ll find out later. For now, the fourth quarter is beginning and nobody west of the Atlantic is happy about the status quo.

The Croatian keeper makes another great save, but more with the fist. I don’t like this guy. And then they score: 8-2. I fear the writing is on the wall. I’ve got to say, the US guys keep the assault going, but that Croatian defense is a total road block and that keeper is annoying the heart out of me with that fist. Less than two minutes remaining and it’s impossible to deny that US medals hopes are done. Another US canon is blocked and now I’m really annoyed. Moses also stops one with less than a minute remaining, but it’s over. When the guys start doing the backstroke, I figure that means it’s done.

It’s a disappointing result for the US, and for the NYAC, and I’m never one for seeking consolation in the fact that the guys who won may be the ultimate winners. (Although, it looks that way. Hungary went out to Italy earlier today). If consolation is to be found anywhere, it must be in the fact of a game well played and hard fought. I wouldn’t say that to the US team right now, though. Olympians don’t like losing. That’s why they’re Olympians.

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