American expat realizes dream as volunteer for Sochi Olympics

November 12, 2013 Elena Bobrova, RBTH
Tamara Smith is no stranger to adventure. The American expat from Canton, CT., has lived in Moscow for almost a decade. Last year, she ran her first half marathon across the frozen Lake Baikal. This year, the language teacher was chosen to volunteer at the Olympics in Sochi. Smith talks to RBTH about living her dream.
An American volunteer will be working as an assistant to athletes in a particular sport from the United States. Source: Mikhail Mordasov
An American volunteer will be working as an assistant to athletes in a particular sport from the United States. Source: Mikhail Mordasov

How long have you lived in Russia? Why did you move here and what have you been doing?

This is our tenth year living in Moscow. We moved here for my husband’s job—he was an associate in a U.S. law firm—and then stayed on. He was just transferred to London, but my children and I will remain until the end of the school year so I can still volunteer at the Olympics.

Counting down days to Sochi: Tamara in Moscow. Source: personal archive

In the United States I’m a French and Spanish teacher, and I really missed it—so seven years ago I went back to teaching in a Russian private school. I absolutely love working with my Russian students and colleagues! In addition, I have greatly enjoyed blogging about life in Russia for those interested in Moscow and Russian culture.

How did you become involved with preparations for the Olympics?

Ever since Sochi was announced as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, I was determined to somehow be involved… My yearning to be a part of the Winter Olympics dates back to when I was four years old, spellbound by Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev’s gold medal-winning performance in Pairs Figure Skating at Innsbruck… That night inspired my future passions for foreign languages and figure skating—so volunteering in Sochi is truly a dream come true for me.

Is this your first volunteering experience? Have you been a volunteer at other Olympics/sports events?

I volunteered throughout high school and university as a mentor to at-risk children, and I volunteer with Maria’s Children, a wonderful organization based in Moscow that provides support to orphans and needy children through art therapy—but this will be my first experience volunteering at a sports event.

Click to enlarge the infographics about foreign volunteers in Sochi

Was it a difficult application and vetting process?

The application process was highly organized and extremely professional. I was interviewed twice in person, and I took two exams which tested language skills, basic knowledge and problem solving, and I completed a psychological assessment.

What qualifications are required for Americans to volunteer?

The main requirements for American volunteers are fluency in Russian, and the ability to complete training. Since there are so many different ways to serve as a volunteer, necessary skills can vary—but the most important of all is the desire to help in any way needed during the Games.

I initially thought that my knowledge of additional languages beyond Russian would make me stand out—but I think that perhaps even more significant was that I have eight years’ experience driving in Moscow traffic without any accidents!

Do you know how many American volunteers there are, and where you'll stay?

I think I’m the only American volunteering from Moscow, but I know that many others will be volunteering from countries around the world. The age range of volunteers is very broad. While in Sochi, volunteers will stay in a variety of locations—but most of us will be living dormitory-style in brand-new apartments, which will then be sold after the Games are over.

Have you been to Sochi before? What are your impressions?

I haven’t been to Sochi yet, but I can’t wait… We’ve learned a great deal about the city, the Olympic venues, accommodations and transportation logistics at training, and we are encouraged to familiarize ourselves with the environs as much as possible before arriving by using tools such as Google maps and sites about main attractions and places the athletes might want or need to visit. The city seems quite unique and beautiful!

What exactly will you be doing at the Olympics?

I won’t know my exact assignment until December, but I do know that I will be working as an assistant to athletes in a particular sport from the United States. It is likely that I’ll work with the U.S. Figure Skating Team, driving the skaters to practices and events, translating and interpreting for them, and helping them—and their entire entourage—with everything that arises on a daily basis.

How long will stay at the Games? Can you watch many of the events?

I will be at the Games for 32 days, before any members of my team will arrive and after they will have departed. The only event I know I’ll watch for sure is a women’s ice hockey match for which I have a ticket—I couldn’t buy any other tickets in advance since I don’t know when I’ll be busy with my assignment. There’s a good chance that I’ll be able to watch my team during some practice sessions and events, but it’s not guaranteed.

I know for certain, however, that I’ll get to be a part of the dress rehearsal for the Opening Ceremonies. Volunteers from my area will hold the flags of all participating countries, pretending to lead in the delegations as they march around the stadium.

Do you do any sports yourself?

I still love figure skating and I run. Two years ago I ran an ice half marathon at -23 C to raise money for charity across frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia!

What is your opinion about Sochi critics?

My focus as a volunteer over the last few months has been to get things ready for the games and little else.  I’m confident that the organizers and everyone involved are working hard to make sure that Sochi is 100 percent ready, and as a current resident of Moscow, I know that the improvements made will continue to benefit Sochi residents and visitors long after the Olympics are over. So in the spirit of the Games, I focus on the positive.

Are you ready for security disruptions or protests? How do you feel about preparing for that?

I can’t go into much detail, but safety has always been a priority for the government and organizers, and it is a major part of our volunteer training. The safety of the staff, athletes, participants and spectators will always be a part of the Olympic Games planning, just like any other major sporting event, regardless of the location or political climate.  

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