OLYMPICS 60,000 young volunteers welcoming visiting throng
Volunteers are everywhere in Athens trying to charm spectators and journalists.
ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Their uniforms are rainbow-colored polo shirts, and their weapons are disarming smiles.
Greece has deployed an army of 60,000 exuberant young volunteers in an all-out charm offensive targeting the hordes of spectators and journalists converging on the capital for the Athens Olympics.
They're unpaid, but that hasn't stopped them from practically tripping over each other to put a broad grin on these games.
As the clock ticks down to Friday's opening ceremony, knots of volunteers are as ubiquitous in Athens as the Olympic logo. They're everywhere -- at the airport, the train station, the venues, the athlete and media villages -- readily dispensing a hearty "Yia sou!" ("Hello!"), a chilled bottle of water, and a friendly tip on what to eat or where catch the bus.
"Xenophobia is a Greek word, but the truth is that we Greeks love foreigners," said Constantina Stathopoulo, 21, a volunteer from the western port city of Patras, not far from ancient Olympia where the first games were staged.
"Welcoming people is a Greek tradition," she said. "Meeting strangers is an opportunity to learn things. We're all people, and we have to respect each other."
The work isn't easy. Volunteers often sweat for hours in the wilting heat, using sign language to communicate with people who don't speak English and dealing with grouchy, jet-lagged visitors who just want to be left alone for a nap in an air-conditioned room.
Gina Vasdeki, a tourism management major at Athens' main university, is empathetic.
"I've worked in a hotel. I know what people are going through when they've come from so far away," she said, frantically passing out bottles of water as though they were batons in a relay.
Volunteers' only rewards are free food, drink and transportation. They're on their own when it comes to a place to stay, so the non-Athenians are bunking with friends and relatives in the capital, or in some cases even paying for their own hotel rooms.
None of that, though, has dampened their enthusiasm or sense of camaraderie.
"Why are you walking in this heat? I beg you, get on the shuttle bus!" one young man shouted to a startled group of journalists strolling through the city.
Organizers say about 170,000 youths applied for the 60,000 slots.
"We had people begging to volunteer," Greek Olympic Committee chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said Monday. "The Greeks wanted badly to participate, to be part of the games."
To be sure, not all Greeks are thrilled at the foreign invasion.
Some see it as a final indignity to be endured after putting up with the seven years of dust, construction and traffic tie-ups that have preceded the Olympics. Many Athenians have fled the city and don't plan to return until the games -- and the crowds -- are gone.
But the volunteers, mostly college students, see it as a matter of national pride to put the best face possible on the world's greatest sports extravaganza.
They're a welcome diversion from the unsmiling police officers and heavily armed soldiers patrolling Athens to secure the games.
In a show of affection, pride and solidarity for the helpers, Angelopoulos-Daskalaki has taken to wearing one of their trademark polo shirts, a multicolored design festooned with the Olympic rings. A daughter is a volunteer.
"We won't see another Olympic Games in our town. This is an experience we'll never have again," said Margianna Mavridou, a 21-year-old volunteer helping some of the estimated 20,000 foreign journalists settle into their rooms at one media village.