ASEAN Centre in MGIMO-University the MFA of Russia


The Great Games


Second-year MGIMO Master’s student from Singapore Aaron Chee shares his experiences as a volunteer at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

The S7 Airlines flight from Domodedovo to Sochi was rather empty. The Olympic Games had closed in spectacular fashion just two days ago, and the Paralympics were still two weeks away. The few passengers on board were either residents of Sochi or volunteers like myself. As the aircraft made its descent over Sochi, I was lucky enough to catch a few breathtaking views of the gleaming, modern Olympic Park by the sea.

‘I can see Abkhazia from my house’

All Sochi 2014 volunteers were offered free accommodation in Sochi, and I was housed in a large ‘volunteers’ village’, along with several thousand other volunteers. This was located some distance away from the Paralympic venues and Sochi city – in fact, I lived only a couple of hundred metres away from the border with Abkhazia – but my room offered stunning views of the surrounding mountains.

On my first day, I managed to meet many interesting people from all over Russia. Some of them were, like myself, newly arrived volunteers, while others were leaving after completing their stints during the Olympic Games. The latter had many stories to share. Almost everyone was friendly, cheerful and upbeat.

I received my accreditation and uniform the following day, after standing in line for almost five hours (!). Security in Sochi was very tight, and for good reason. Access to the Paralympic venues was strictly for accredited persons only (and even spectators had to apply for special spectators’ passes in advance), and I often had to clear airport-style security screening several times a day: x-ray machines, metal detectors, rigorous patdowns, confiscated water bottles.

Work hard, play hard

I received a rather enviable job. Together with a team of about thirty volunteers, I worked in the coastal Paralympic village – in the Plaza retail area, the Recreational centre for athletes, and the athletes’ gym. There were plenty of opportunities to interact with athletes from various countries, and to see the Paralympic village from the inside.

With the Chinese wheelchair curling team

The coastal village

We were on shift six days a week. The morning shifts began at half past eight, and ended at four, while the afternoon shifts began at four and ended at midnight. Fortunately, this meant that there was ample time for us to see Sochi, and enjoy the games.

And there was also plenty to see and do. Sochi city was located about 50 minutes away from the Olympic Park by train. This ‘summer capital’ of Russia certainly lives up to its name. When the weather was good, it was easy to forget that I was at the Winter Paralympics!

The Black Sea

The Paralympic venues were also a sight to behold. Clearly, lots of money has been poured into Sochi’s pre-games facelift. The mountain cluster resembles a luxurious, brand-spanking-new location for a ski holiday. The Olympic Park boasts six large state-of-the-art sporting venues, with views of the Black Sea and the snow-peaked Caucasus mountains.

The mountain village

The Olympic Park

Tickets to the games were hard to obtain (not least because the demand for them was overwhelming), but I did manage to watch a few events live: wheelchair curling, sledge hockey, and cross-country skiing.

An unforgettable experience

Time really flies when you’re having fun. Before I knew it, the games were over, and it was time to get back to the grind in Moscow. The Paralympic Games were a great opportunity for me to meet people from all over Russia (and indeed all over the world). Many volunteers were young, passionate, and full of hope for the future. Some were retirees – babushki who made the trip to Sochi because they too wanted to be part of the Games – and they were the some of the warmest, sweetest people that I’ve ever met.

The Paralympians were absolutely inspirational. In spite of their disabilities, they pulled off seemingly impossible feats – downhill skiing on one leg, or with a sighted guide; cross-country ski races with nothing but their arms to power them forward; and so much more.

I think that this sets the Paralympic Games apart from most other sporting events. There is a real sense of purpose among all its participants – they know that they are taking part to educate and to inspire. Fundamentally, the Games were about showing the world that people with disabilities could leadd dignified, meaningful lives. And that was something that everyone at the Games – the organisers, athletes, volunteers, and spectators – took great pride in.

Aaron CHEE