Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

Olympic Volunteering for the Unemployed: Who Benefits and How?

Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

Olympic Volunteering for the Unemployed: Who Benefits and How?

Article excerpt


Volunteering has become an important feature in the staging of mega-events such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Panagiotopoulou, 2005; Rodenhurst, Comeford-Park et al. 2008). However, its role has provoked discussion and controversy. On the one hand, Olympic volunteering has been understood as a way of developing individuals' skills and producing wider benefits of combatting social exclusion and improving social cohesion (Smith 2008). On the other hand, Olympic volunteering initiatives have been characterised as a 'smoke-screen', promoted as socially beneficial by host-country organisers to win the initial bid, but then used to economise on labour costs through free volunteer labour (Nichols & Ralston, 2012).

An important dimension of recent Olympic Games and other major sporting events has been the use of volunteering as an instrument of 'active labour market policy' (ALMP), which aims to alleviate unemployment in areas of social and economic disadvantage (Hill, 2009; Lee, 2010). Notably, the national and local governments behind the Sydney and London Olympics and the Manchester Commonwealth Games sponsored the recruitment and training of volunteer labour within a public-private institutional arrangement in order to pursue ALMP goals. However, the extent to which such investments have reached their intended beneficiaries and succeeded in their aims is difficult to measure and remains unclear (Smith, 2008).

Olympic volunteering therefore involves a number of aims and stakeholders, but its multiple benefits are contested. This paper seeks to clarify the terrain. It asks what Olympic volunteering is for, who benefits from it, and how the benefits are manifested. It approaches this task in three main sections. In its first section, the paper employs the concepts of human capital (Becker, 1964) and social capital (Bourdieu, 1986; Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 2000) to analyse the potential benefits of volunteering and to review the evidence of these benefits. In its second section, the paper analyses the public-private institutional context and labour market policy aims behind Olympic volunteering. In its third section, to capture richer contextual detail, the paper presents a London-based case study of an Olympic-style volunteering initiative for the unemployed. The case study shows the range of outcomes for volunteers and illustrates the actual difficulties of attempting to use volunteering to alleviate unemployment by developing human and social capital.

The paper's conclusion is that the development of human and social capital through Olympic volunteering will be limited and unevenly distributed across three distinct groups: traditional volunteers; close-to-labour market volunteers; and hard-to-reach volunteers. The paper's empirical contribution is to add to understanding of how volunteering relates to the development of human and social capital, and in particular how this relationship is mediated by institutional arrangements and individuals' experiences of unemployment. The paper also makes a practical contribution by suggesting how volunteering initiatives directed at the unemployed might be made more effective.


Volunteering is typically assumed by policy makers to have positive benefits for individuals and society. For example, the newly-elected UK Coalition Government in 2010 made volunteering activity a centrepiece of its 'Big Society' strategy (BBC News, 19 July 2010). In academic terms, the benefits of volunteering to the individual may be understood in terms of human capital, while benefits to society may be understood in terms of social capital. However, these theoretical concepts and their interrelationships are complex.

Volunteering, or more broadly 'voluntary action', has two main traditions: philanthropy; and mutual aid (Baines & Hardill, 2008). Philanthropic voluntary action is typically associated with the sharing of private wealth and may be related to the contemporary notion of 'social responsibility'; it might include, for example, the accommodating of trainees, apprentices and volunteers by large businesses. …

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