There are 6,542 miles and a tiring 14-hour flight separating Iowa City, Iowa and Beijing, China, but that did not prevent 26 University of Iowa students from signing up to be media volunteers for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Five of those volunteers recently traveled to Beijing to cover test events and prepare for the Games. They will return to Beijing again this summer with volunteers from around the world to cover the Olympics.
"I love sports, I've covered sports, and who wouldn't want a close-up at some of the most watched sports in the world, even if we aren't seeing much other than one event?" said Nathan Cooper, a journalism and American studies major from Glenville, Minn.
The search for media volunteers began three years ago when media operations for the Olympics launched its Specialist Volunteer Program to recruit volunteers from around the world. The students serve as reporters and writers for the Olympic News Service, with English as the primary language. The Service provides media coverage for all Olympic events and it is used by international media.
Universities located in Beijing serve as strategic partners for the recruitment and training of the specialist volunteers studying in journalism, communications and public relations. The University of Iowa and Tsinghua University signed into a partnership for volunteer recruiting; making the UI the first university outside of China to sign such agreement. Tsinghua University provide local accommodations and transportation but the students pay for travel. Other funding for travel to test events and conferences is provided by UI departments and sponsors.
Along with Cooper, Marcus Schulz, a journalism and international studies major from Yorkville, Ill., and Michael Stout, a journalism and English major from Perry, Iowa traveled to Beijing in August to cover a test event focusing on the Junior World Wrestling Championships. These students stayed in Beijing for 10 days and will return again next summer for the Olympics.
Schulz is looking forward to being at the event and the chance to travel to another country.
"Working with the Olympic News Service is going to give me some great experience. I get to do two extremely exciting things at once," Schulz said.
Two other students, Emily Doolittle from Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Elizabeth Tuttle of Excelsior, Minn., traveled to Beijing in October to cover the International Tennis Competition. Both are journalism and international studies majors and covered this trial event to prepare for their return to the summer Games.
These students took two weeks to travel to Beijing which happened to be over midterm week. Although they had to do a lot of prioritizing and planning around classes, the experience of covering the Olympics was more important than re-arranging their schedules.
Doolittle has limited travel outside of the United States and she was anxious to venture to a different country.
I wanted to learn a new language, cross off "Go to the Olympic Games" from my life's to do list and involve myself with a large project at the University," she said.
Covering the tennis competition was a great experience for the volunteers, including thinking and editing very quickly. Immediately after a tennis match ended, the media volunteers had two minutes to ask questions, go back up to the Olympic News Service office and prepare and edit their information within 15 minutes.
“The confidence I have gained abroad has helped me tremendously in marketing myself, using my languages, and has increased my readiness to take risks,” she said.
In order to train the volunteers, a typical day consisted of working morning or night shifts at the competitions, getting quotes from athletes and collecting press conference highlights. Afterwards, they entered quotes and information into a database for other journalists to use. It was important to keep in mind what quotes would be useful to journalists because the database supplied information to journalists around the world.
The student volunteers helped the editors translate Chinese quotes and correct their English grammar. Schulz spent most of his time off watching competitions, walking around the area observing the surroundings or just talking to Chinese volunteers to learn more about their culture.
A concern for students traveling to Beijing was the language barrier due to the fact that these students do not speak fluent Chinese. However, the students were relieved to find it was not as challenging. Using a lot of hand gestures, staying calm and studying the language prior to traveling helped the students.
“I met an Iranian photojournalist who helped me interview Iranian gold medal winners,” Schulz said. “In the end we could usually avoid language problems by being patient. Someone who spoke English was usually around to help if we were willing to ask,” Schulz said.
“Most of the volunteers spoke fluent English, Cooper said. He continued, “We had maps, and most signs were in English. However, a taxi driver did take us to the wrong gate at our university once which is a minor mistake, but it would be like getting dropped off at Carver-Hawkeye Arena when you're trying to go to the Pentacrest.”
Now that these students got a glimpse of what covering the Olympics might be like, they have the chance to prepare themselves to cover the actual Games. They want to become more familiar with basics of the culture and the language in order to help get through the language barrier.
“Mainly I'm just trying to better my Chinese.” Schulz said. “Being able to better communicate with more volunteers at any event in Chinese will be more important than anything.”
“Honestly, I think the time we spent in Beijing was the best preparation I'm going to get,” Cooper said.
The entire group of UI students will report to Beijing in late June 2008 for orientation and training for the regular summer games and some will stay on as volunteers for the. Paralympics in September. They will receive their coverage assignments for the Olympics later this year.
For Cooper, the best part about this entire program is being able to experience a culture so vastly different than what he is used to.
“Not every journalist can say they've gone and covered that type of event, let alone the Olympics,” said Cooper.
“Actually being there was an enlightening experience,” Schulz said. “I learned more about the world in two weeks than I could have in years of reading textbooks about China.“
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