Want to meet Michael Phelps? While many students watched the Olympics on TV, Jimalyn Yao (SFS ’10) was there representing the United States. Yao, a Science, Technology and International Affairs major, was selected by the U.S. Olympic Committee as a volunteer at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Besides taking care of logistical responsibilities, Yao worked at the U.S.A. House, the social center for the United States where she met athletes, celebrities and even sponsors. Having lived in China, Yao was proud to watch her former homeland come together for the historic event.

How did you get involved with volunteering at the Olympics?

I found the opportunity through an e-mail from the Chinese Department here. I wrote a regular application with essays that was sent directly to the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) in Colorado. They looked for people with energy and enthusiasm and the ability to do well with the culture. The Olympic Committees usually start recruiting volunteers about a year before the Olympic Games. If you go to the USOC.org Web site and look up internship opportunities, it’s a good way to get involved with the Olympics in a productive and constructive way, rather than just taking ticket stubs in the sun. You can also get internships with sponsors like Visa, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Puma, etc. Also, the media does the same. I highly suggest it as a great opportunity.

What did you do as a volunteer?

Usually there are different types of volunteers; there are the kinds that volunteer under the Beijing Olympics Committee, but there are other volunteers that usually apply to certain country’s team. I applied for the country team. We got there Aug. 4 and our job responsibilities involved logistics, registration, transportation, translation, airport pick-up – pretty much all the little things that add up to the big things. We were separated into shifts – if you had a morning shift, you got a better chance of getting free tickets to events; if you had an evening shift, you got to attend all the parties and events in the night; if you had a mid-day shift, you got to register athletes and see a lot of different people coming in. Everything had its perks. I got to work at the U.S.A. House.

What is the U.S.A. House?

The U.S.A. House is kind of like our social events place. It’s so important because Lenovo and McDonald’s, for example, gave us a lot of money. For example, we had an iZone where we showcased Lenovo. Also, we had lounge areas for companies like AT&T. We try to make sponsors happy since they have really supported us throughout this whole time. It’s also the business and hospitality center for the U.S. Team. They would rent out a huge venue like a big restaurant that they take over for the Olympic period where they would have the sponsors dine and have special VIPs come in. It gets pretty swanky since we have bars and catering from the United States. If there were any special food events, they would be held there. If you’re in the bidding for the Olympics, you can also showcase your bid there. For 2016, we’re in the bid for Chicago, so there was a room set up to showcase that bid. Whenever we had an Olympic gold medalist, we would do a tour where the athlete would go around and meet the sponsors, like Speedo for Michael Phelps. We got to see a lot of important people – Olympians, past Olympians, sponsors, Olympian family members, etc.

What was the most exciting part about the experience?

The actual work you do at the U.S.A. House can be really tedious when a lot of people are coming through the store. You’re literally folding clothes for hours a day. But, sometimes, with registration, you get to sign in people like Michael Phelps. The best part is not the work but the kind of contact you get with people. Instead of just being a spectator, you see the whole momentum and dynamic of the Olympics. You see the corporate side, the marketing side, the victory side and the competitive side. A great perk is that you get free tickets every night to events and parties. There are some main party companies that usually sponsor all the Olympic parties. They’re usually Budweiser, which creates Club Budweiser, and Heineken with the Heineken House. These are the two places that all the Olympic athletes and people that want to see the athletes go to and mingle with others. People were just dying to get to know each other and learn about their cultures. It was just so fascinating to meet people and get to know their life stories. It’s like a never-ending cycle of excitement.

Which stars did you get to meet?

The Volleyball gold medalists – Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. I met Shawn Johnson as well as the other gymnasts. We met Michael Phelps and Dara Torres. The Williams sisters came by. LeBron James came by too as well as Michelle Kwan, David Schwimmer, Mia Hamm, a lot of the previous years’ athletes, the men’s volleyball team, the wrestling team, Ralph Lauren’s son, and many more. It was really interesting. I kind of wish I did my research on who’s who before they came through.

What do you think of the controversy that surrounded the Olympics? How do you think the controversy affected the Olympics?

From overseas, what you see in the news is the riots and human rights violations, and the Dalai Lama, and the earthquake and Chinese censorship; but what CNN doesn’t portray is that in the midst of all this violence and political tension is this surge of nationalism that occurred in the seven years after Beijing won the Olympic bid. The Chinese don’t seem to place such a big value on the problems because they believe that in order to get success, you can’t place importance in the problems. They see the government doing their best in trying to ameliorate the problems. Given that China has been subject to so much humiliation in the past from the West, what happened as a result from all this criticism is that China actually united and became very passionate about the cause and the Olympic goal that they were unable to see anything past the Olympic goal, not because of censorship but also because they believe that the West does not really know the reality. China did not fail but China succeeded because for the first time, they were actually able to unite and feel that passion someone feels for their country. To be honest, the Chinese tried to convince the world that pollution problems were not affecting the air much, but really, it’s like thick chicken soup with mugginess and grayness. It’s kinda tough because you see all the efforts the Chinese have tried to put in. You see all the civil activities to try to clean up the air and clean up society but from The New York Times’ perspective, all we hear is that the air quality has not gotten better. The Chinese are able to see the sacrifices made and the changes made and so they are sympathetic to the government. I recognize the controversy and know there has been a lot of injustice, but everything you see has to be taken with a grain of salt and has to be put in the context of what China has gone through.

What unexpected things did you see or notice when you went to China?

I have never seen a country mobilize its people, its goals, its policies toward one single goal as the Chinese did for the past seven years. Any road that was built, any subway that was opened, any trashcan placed on the street, was all strategically done for the Olympics. Everything was all rooted to the Olympics. While I’m sure that Sydney and Athens and all did some of these things, I’ve never seen a country shift all its principles, government, policies and everything else toward one single goal – the Olympics. It’s not toward harmony, democracy, peace, etc. It’s toward the Olympics. The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games did everything from food sanitation to cleaning up algae to avoiding traffic jams. All concessions, all that the government did with regards to Darfur and Tibet, all of that was done for the Olympics. That was something spectacular because I have not seen one country with so many issues to focus all that into one single, spectacular event. That was amazing. As a result, I could understand when they get sensitive if somebody criticizes it. China approached the Olympics as a debutante ball, their entry into the world. They overdid everything to make the Olympics perfect. They were very sensitive and hurt that all of their efforts were not recognized, and they wanted to protect themselves from their small weaknesses to be exploited more.

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