In August 2022 I had the great honour of joining the 14,000-strong team of volunteers at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. The opportunity first came to my attention through, of all things, an Instagram ad about a year before, and I applied on a whim (“oh sweet, I’ve got digs in Leamington Spa, should be simple enough”). The process was incredibly long and drawn out, but not arduous, involving just an interview and two half days of training. My interview took place at Birmingham Library in February, and is actually a fond memory, because I spent the afternoon after I was done studying in York’s cafe and generally enjoying the city atmosphere. Finally, I received my uniform in the post in July (and what a dashing outfit that was).
As it happened, the lease on my house in Leamington, where I live during term time, ended on 31st July and my first shift was 1st August, which meant I had some organisation to do! I was quite chuffed with myself for booking a room in some student accommodation for the week – it came out to around £250, which is the nightly rate for some hotels! I liked this option as I had the freedom to come and go, my own (very large) space, and the ability to prep my own food. A week of restaurant meals just wasn’t practical or affordable. I went with IQ Student Accommodation simply because it was the easiest to book out of a bunch of Google search options, but there are other companies. I ended up in a decent location, outside of the centre but with regular buses to and from. I could picture being a student living there full time – although I do prefer the town life and accessible shops in Leam. The room itself was a lovely space – far more luxurious than what most people would picture as student accommodation! A kettle and toaster might have been nice, so I could have made a brew, but maybe they’d just been taken out of the rooms for the summer. I feel for the students if they have to source their own on top of everything! I do highly recommend this option though for short-term self-catered accommodation. Just remember bedding and toilet roll.
My role-specific training took place in Birmingham in April, and consisted of just one morning of interactive presentation and then hands-on role practice. This involved a lot of role play with other volunteers, which I hate, but it was a great opportunity to meet people from all sorts of backgrounds. It was all made easier for me by living nearby; some people travelled from very far afield just for single-day events. We also had venue specific training, which for me was at the NEC and consisted just of a walk around – but even this took upwards of an hour due to the size of the place. This was the week before my shifts started, and again, wasn’t too much effort becauce I had to be in that neck of the woods anyway to pack up and move out of the house. That in itself, although a lot of work, is a fun memory; just me in my empty room eating Chinese food surrounded by boxes.
On to the main event
The volunteering itself was hit and miss, but it was the sort of thing where the practicalities didn’t matter – I was just happy to be there. I didn’t have a fixed team and rotated around NEC halls for each shift, meaning that internal communication was difficult. My first shift ended up being a false start as I couldn’t find the team and was eventually informed that I wasn’t needed. It was an incredibly stressful start, but I’m proud of how I handled it and it just gave me an extra evening to explore the city. The rest of my shifts were better than this, but there were still occasions where we weren’t needed. I was an anti-doping chaperone, and depending on how many tests were being carried out, they often only needed one or two volunteers. But this was impossible to plan in advance, as one of the control measures means that team leaders only get information about the tests required on the same day.
Ultimately, I learned that, despite the mammoth efforts that go into organising a big games, it can still be a bit uncertain behind the scenes. Volunteers have to be flexible, but most staff are very concerned about optimising your experience. I would have been happy to do whatever was needed, even if it wasn’t what I was originally expecting, but everyone was very conscious that the volunteers were there for a good time as well as a job, and wanted to make the best of it. I got to watch some badminton, boxing and netball, with seats very close to the action, so I’m not complaining!
Exploring the city
I’ve always had a much higher opinion of Birmingham than some people I think! I knew the city a bit from day trips such as my interview, and visiting the Christmas market, thanks to studying so nearby. I always get a bit defensive when people voice their opinions of Brum because – let’s face it – it doesn’t have a good reputation. But the city centre is actually beautiful, with lots of independent shops and restaurants. I feel very lucky that I got to be there during games week as well, because there was a sort of party atmosphere in the city that actually made me emotional at times. I may speak highly, but I know the city might never be that alive again when I’m there. I had a lovely walk along the canals, through Digbeth and a very brief visit to the museum with my mum. The number of families in town visits gave for a very homely feel, and I loved knowing that everyone might have been discovering a place they’d previously underestimated. I especially loved exploring on my own, which is something I haven’t done much recently unless it’s to run errands. It was great being able to plan my own time and just enjoy my own company, even in cafes.
Joining the crowds
As if my ring-side seats during shifts wasn’t good enough, dad and I also secured tickets to the opening athletics session at Alexander Stadium, which has recently undergone a remodel. It was the first major athletics event I’ve watched in person, despite being a fan of the sport for years. We watched KJT’s high jump and Thompson-Hera’s first heat – but I was quite distracted by the RC vans collecting the discus!
The systems put in place to get tens of thousands of people into and out of the stadium were fantastic, and the energy that all the volunteers brought to their job was amazing to witness. Knowing that I was one of them was a great feeling, even if my role and venue were worlds apart from the stadium. That said, I’m glad I didn’t have a public-facing role, as I simply don’t have the infectious energy required! Those volunteers were the right choice for their jobs, without doubt.
There were ups and downs. But even a short couple of months later, I’m forgetting the downs! I’d recommend volunteering at a similar event to anyone, as long as you feel you’re easygoing enough to accpet whatever job role comes your way, and whatever random shift changes might occur! I was very lucky to get such an exciting job as chaperoning (although after 4 hours of watching badminton, I began to think differently) but I think I’d have been happy with anything!
The other thing I’d suggest is to travel more within your home country! I loved sightseeing and taking in the history of Birmingham just as much as volunteering, if not more. I’ll definitely be taking myself off for more cheap city breaks in the future, especially on my own.
I did post extensively about the experience on Instagram, including the good, the bad, and the random facts I picked up along the way. You can view the instagram highlight here. Have a tap through – maybe you’ll learn something about the city!