Unpaid Olympic volunteers do almost everything: guide athletes around, welcome important people and help lost visitors. International Olympic Committee officials say the games could not be held without these volunteers. They are praised and thanked by presidents and prime ministers.

Even with billions of dollars to spend on the games, there remains the need for people who will work for free. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will require an estimated 80,000 volunteers. And many Japanese people are seeking the chance to take part. About 200,000 have begun the process to gain a volunteer position this month.

The unpaid labor enriches Olympic advertisers, powerful television networks and the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee. But there are critics of the situation.

“To me, it’s very clearly economic exploitation,” said Joel Maxcy, president of the International Association of Sports Economists and a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Maxcy described a situation in which volunteers create the product but “someone else is collecting nearly all of the money derived from those labor efforts.”

So why do people volunteer at the games? For one, it is exciting to be connected to the powerful Olympic brand and to get close to star athletes.

“I’m willing to work for free if I can get a chance to see and talk to Olympians from all over the world in person,” said Yutaro Tokunaga. The 26-year-old attended a recent program for volunteers. He said his employer is giving him five paid days off from work during the Olympics.

Masanobu Ishii is also seeking a volunteer position. He said he wanted to demonstrate the spirit of “omotenashi,” or Japanese hospitality. Some volunteers work the games from a sense of civic duty or to show their patriotism. Many older volunteers do not need more money.

Andy Schwarz is a California-based labor economist. He said some people would even pay for the chance to volunteer. “It’s easy to imagine the Olympics charging for the right to help if the honor were high enough,” he said.

Olympic volunteers usually pay their own hotel and transportation costs. They eat for free on the days they work. Their training is free and they are provided with official clothing that they can keep at no cost. In Tokyo, volunteers will get up to 1,000 yen daily, about nine U.S. dollars, to get to work on the city’s massive train system.

More than 65 percent of the volunteer candidates for the Tokyo Olympics are Japanese. About the same percentage are women.

Tracey Dickson studies volunteerism at Canberra University in Australia. She says there are many reasons for volunteering that are more than just “economics.” She said people like the friendships they make during the experience.

Exercise 1


Read the following vocabulary with your teacher.

enrich (v.) /ɛnˈrɪtʃ/ - to make (something) better

  • Their lives were enriched by the experience.

exploitation (n.) /ɛksplɔɪˈteɪʃ(ə)n/ - The action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.

  • The chocolate industry benefits from the exploitation of child workers in cocoa fields.

derive (v.) /dɪˈraɪv/ - to take or get (something) from (something else)

  • The river derives its name from a Native American tribe.

brand (n.) /brand/ - a category of products that are all made by a particular company and all have a particular name

  • What brand are those jeans you are wearing?

hospitality (n.) /ˌhɑːspəˈtæləti/ - The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.

  • Scotland is renowned for its hospitality.


Exercise 2


Answer these questions about the article.

1. How many people will volunteer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics?

2. What does Joel Maxcy think of using volunteers for the Olympics?

3. How many of the the volunteer candidates for the Tokyo Olympics are women?


Exercise 3

Make a sentence.

Make sentences using these words.

enrich, exploitation, brand, hospitality, derive


Exercise 4


Have a discussion on following questions. 

1. Do you think that Olympic volunteers are being exploited?

2. Given the chance, would you volunteer at the Olympics?

3. Is volunteering popular in your country?

4. If you could volunteer at any event, which one would you choose and why?



This lesson is based on a news article originally published by VOA.