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Olympic volunteers get gold medal for good cheer

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JILL LAWLESS | August 4, 2012 07:12 AM EST | AP

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LONDON — It's a frantic morning at London's Olympic Park.

Some 200,000 people are descending to watch cycling, field hockey, handball, swimming and track and field. But a main subway line has chosen this inopportune moment to break down and thousands of hot, stressed-out people are streaming toward the Olympic entrance gates.

But relief is at hand – waving giant foam fingers.

A phalanx of smiling figures in purple and red line the route to the venues, calling out greetings and pointing the way. They are some of the 70,000 volunteer "Games Makers" whose job is to give directions, reunite lost children with their families and smooth the way for Olympic visitors.

Amid griping about empty seats, overcrowded transport and ticketing troubles, the volunteers are the one aspect of the London Games that has won universal praise. So tireless! So cheerful! So friendly!

Toto, are we still in brusque, sharp-elbowed London?

"This is what London is like!" said 50-year-old volunteer Kostas Ruffy – "a true Cockney, me" – as he stood inside the park gates high-fiving as many arriving spectators as possible. "We're cheerful. We love a bit of banter."

The volunteers keep up a stream of cheery "Good mornings" to the hordes. Some point the way with oversize pink foam hands.

A young man atop a lifeguard-style chair speaks courteously and ceaselessly through a microphone: "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and a very warm welcome to you. Please have your tickets ready."

The scene is repeated at Olympic venues around London, and across the city in general, where the mayor's office has deployed a further army of pink-clad "London Ambassadors."

It's as if an extrovert convention has taken over London.

The process of assembling this army of volunteers began almost two years ago, when organizers of the Olympic and Paralympic games put out a call for people who are "inspirational, open, respectful, team-focused, distinctive and have a `can do' attitude. "

They came in droves. The volunteers were chosen from among 240,000 applicants, given several training sessions and issued a uniform of purple-and-red polo shirts and matching jacket, beige trousers, sneakers – and, of course, an umbrella.

It's garish, but it works: They do stand out in a crowd.

The volunteers work eight-to-10 hour shifts on at least 10 of the 17 days of the games. They receive no salary – though they do get to keep the uniform. Their travel and meals are paid for, but not their accommodations. Many of those from outside London are staying with friends or at campsites.

They don't even get tickets to events, although the BBC reported that some volunteers had been asked to bring a spare shirt so they could fill some empty VIP seats that have spurred fury among non ticket-holding sports fans.

They did it, they say, to play a role in something big or because they couldn't get tickets to Olympic events but still wanted to be part of the games.

"From the beginning, everybody has been trying to enthuse us," said volunteer Lynne Manton. "The training was designed to enthuse us. We didn't need it. I was born in London 60 years ago. This is my city. I want to be part of it.

"I'm not being any different from what I normally am."

Organizers' willingness to let the volunteers' personalities shine through is key to their success. It has even made one an Internet star. Rachel Onasanwo, a history graduate from London, was captured atop her high chair on the first day of the games delivering a nonstop stream of deadpan encouragement – "My mouth is dry, I need some water but I'm still talking, because I am that happy."

A passer-by filmed Onasanwo, labeled her the "Happiest Olympic Worker 2012" and posted it on YouTube. It has been viewed more than 1.4 million times.

"I'm a natural people pleaser, and enjoy making people laugh," she wrote in The Guardian newspaper. "When I saw that chair, it was like it had a shining light around it, and I thought: this is the perfect opportunity. This is my chair. It was the first time I had a platform to speak to people, and once I was sat up there with the megaphone I just said what came to mind."

Despite their upbeat outlook, there are inevitable frustrations.

"On the first few days we got lots of people with no tickets," Manton said as she stood near the huge Westfield shopping mall beside Olympic Park. "And they say `But I've just come from Argentina!' What can you do?

"There's a viewing area in one of the big department stores. I've been sending them there if they look really desperate."