What is Special about Paralympic Volunteering?

I am delighted as editor of the RE: Reflections and Explorations series to welcome Dr. Lyusyena Kirakosyan back to its pages this week. Dr. Kirakosyan first proposed this series while a doctoral student at Virginia Tech and provided the leadership to ensure its successful launch. We are much indebted to her creative drive and vision. Her essay addresses a vital topic during these turbulent times for the world’s democracies; the question of empathetic imagination. Her lens to consider this critical concern is her recent experience at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


The importance of volunteers at sport mega events has increased during the last several decades as athletics have risen in social importance and generated ever higher levels of popular participation and expectation (Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Green & Chalip, 2004; Moragas, Moreno & Paniagua, 2000). As Green and Chalip (2004) have pointed out, not only have volunteers become vital to the success of the events they serve, but also to the broader economic and social development to which those occasions are expected to contribute. The growth of the Olympic and Paralympic Games since the 1980s, and the broader media coverage that their increasing scope and size have spawned, has made volunteers essential to their success (Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Green & Chalip, 2004; Kellett, 2008; Rönningen, 2000).

Indeed, many analysts consider the Olympic Games the apex of mega events due to their ability to provide excitement, prestige and numerous social benefits to athletes, audiences and volunteers alike (Kellett, 2008). A growing literature specifically examines the history and different dimensions and factors affecting Olympic volunteering (see Bladen, 2010; Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Chalip, 2000; Green & Chalip, 2004; Kemp, 2002; Lynch, 2001; Moragas et al., 2000; Pound, 2000; Rönningen, 2000, among others), but there is little empirical research on these issues as they are evidenced in Paralympic volunteering (Kellett, 2008). Among the few who have treated the topic, Kellett (2008) has suggested that the experience of volunteering at the Paralympic Games differs from that of engagement with the Olympics. This brief essay outlines my understanding of the unique ways that the Paralympic context can elicit volunteer motivation and provide personal satisfaction.  I draw on my own experiences as a 2016 Paralympics volunteer in Rio de Janeiro and the reflections of several of my peers who share their insights in the video accompanying this essay.

The history of Olympic volunteering dates to the Games held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1912, at which only six volunteers assisted (Lynch, 2001). By 1956, however, when Melbourne, Australia served as host, about 500 volunteers supported the event (Ibid).  Some 70,000 volunteers worked behind the scenes at the Olympics in London in 2012, while the recent Rio event saw 50,000 individuals so serve. The Official Report of the Barcelona, Spain Olympic Games of 1992 was the first formal document to define explicitly the Olympic volunteer: “the volunteer is a person who makes an individual, altruistic commitment to collaborate, to the best of his/ her abilities in the organisation of the Olympic Games, carrying out the tasks assigned to him/her without receiving payment or rewards of any other nature” (cited in Moragas et al., 2000, p.134).

The available literature on volunteer motivation across different event contexts provides insight into building and maintaining commitment among those individuals. Scholars have identified both personal and social factors that motivate people to serve as Olympic volunteers. For example, Moragas et al. (2000) have outlined the following as key incentives for Olympic voluntarism:

  • The spirit of solidarity and peace enshrined in the Olympic philosophy;
  • Commitment as citizens, members of an association or nation;
  • Individual challenge;
  • Belonging to a group;
  • Identification as a member of that group;
  • Various forms of individual gratification (p.147).

Another study by Green and Chalip (2004) highlighted such motivating factors as a desire to help, opportunity to socialize with people sharing common interests, meeting new people and becoming friends with them, recognition of shared purpose and common identity, sense of excitement, celebrity atmosphere and learning, among others. Indeed, those who volunteered at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, whose reflections are compiled in the video shared here, uniformly described their volunteer experiences as extraordinary. As a group, their reasons for volunteering were quite similar to those discussed in the literature. My peers indicated that they were motivated to volunteer by a genuine desire to be helpful, the opportunity to meet new people, becoming friends with other volunteers, special possibilities to broaden their horizons, the chance to be a part of the excitement of a global sporting event, by the sense of community they gained from engaging with other volunteers, spectators and athletes, and by opportunities to gain and share knowledge.

These volunteers also articulated what made their Paralympic volunteering experience distinct, and the theme of mutuality echoed across their testimonies. Jordan (1986) has argued that mutuality depends on interaction, interest in and appreciation of the other, a capacity for empathy, emotional availability and responsiveness. She has argued that mutual empathy involves both an acknowledgment of sameness in the other and an appreciation of the difference of the other’s experience. Mutual empathy contains opportunity for shared growth and impact. The Paralympic volunteers came to understand that their experience involved more than simply making it possible for the athletes to perform their best, as challenging as that could be at times. Those with whom I spoke came to realize that assisting others had encouraged them to change and grow in often unforeseen ways. Paralympic athletes inspired and touched volunteers as they witnessed their triumphs and travails, and changed volunteers through their interactions with them, as those “helping” learned to value and encourage the athletes’ distinct capacities. In short, the Paralympic experience encouraged a deep empathy among the event’s volunteers. As Jordan (1986) has observed, as we reach out to understand the experience of the other, something new grows in us. This encouragement of empathetic imagination applied to the Paralympic volunteering experience, as volunteers became more aware of the limiting power of labels and came to value the unique identities of the remarkable people with disabilities competing in the Games’ various events.

In conclusion, at their best, both Olympic and Paralympic volunteers provide an example of solidarity and selfless work that not only assists the Games, but also provides manifold opportunities for each participating volunteer to grow personally as well.  Moragas et al. (2000) have argued that the importance of the Olympic volunteer movement lies in the following:

  • From the political point of view, it represents the uniting of individual energies into a common project, a new form of participation and the expression of a great public momentum;
  • From the economic point of view, the Olympic volunteers lead to a major reduction in salary costs and, if adequate training is provided, the result can also be a more-highly qualified population;
  • From the cultural point of view, volunteerism involves basic education in multi-culturalism and solidarity (p.151).

These positive characteristics are equally applicable to the Paralympic volunteer movement. But, drawing on my experience, I would add that from a moral perspective, Paralympic volunteerism goes to the heart of our mutual understanding of one another and contributes to our sense of a shared humanity.


Bladen, C.R. (2010). Media representation of volunteers at the Beijing Olympic Games. Sport in Society, 15(5), 784-796. doi:10.1080/17430431003651024.

Carnicelli-Filho, S. (2014). “Emotions and the Olympic Games: The emotional management of volunteers.” In K. A. Smith,  L. Lockstone-Binney, K. Holmes & T. Baum (Eds.), Event Volunteering: International Perspectives on the Event Volunteering Experience. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 140-153.

Chalip, L. (2000). “Sydney ‘2000: Volunteers and the Organisation of the Olympic Games: Economic and Formative Aspects.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.205-214. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from https://doc.rero.ch/record/18172/files/IOC_Symposium_1999.pdf

Green, B.C. & Chalip, L. (2004). “Paths to volunteer commitment: Lessons from the Sydney Olympic Games.” In R.A. Stebbins and M. Graham (Eds.), Volunteering as Leisure. Leisure as Volunteering. An International Assessment. Wallingford: CABI Publishing, pp. 49–67.

Jordan, J.V. (1986). The meaning of mutuality. Paper presented at a Stone Center Colloquium. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from http://www.wcwonline.org/vmfiles/23sc.pdf

Kellett, P. (2008). “Volunteerism and the Paralympic Games.” In K. Gilbert & O.J. Schantz (Eds.), The Paralympic Games: Empowerment or Side Show. Maidenhead, UK: Meyer & Meyer, pp.176-183.

Kemp, S. (2002). The hidden workforce: Volunteers’ learning in the Olympics. Journal of European Industrial Training, 26(2/3/4), 109-116. doi:10.1108/03090590210421987.

Lynch, B. (2001). “Lessons from the Olympics.” In J. Noble & F. Johnston (Eds.), Volunteering Visions. Sydney, Australia: The Federation Press, pp.70-75.

Moragas, M., Moreno, A.B., & Paniagua, R. (2000). “The Evolution of Volunteers at the Olympic Games.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.133-154.

Pound, R. W. (2000). “Volunteers and the Olympic Movement: Past, Present and Future.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.223-230. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from https://doc.rero.ch/record/18172/files/IOC_Symposium_1999.pdf

Rönningen, P. (2000). “Lillehammer ’94.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp. 183-187. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from https://doc.rero.ch/record/18172/files/IOC_Symposium_1999.pdf


lyusyenaLyusyena Kirakosyan currently serves as a Senior Project Associate at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance and a governance and development consultant for nongovernmental organizations. Her research interests include disability and human rights issues, community development and democratic citizenship. She recently volunteered for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and is at work on a book on the Paralympics legacy. Since January 2016, she has been a research member of the Brazilian Paralympic Academy that focusses on inquiry into paralympic sports in Brazil. The Academy is formally a part of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee.

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