LONDON – They are the unsung heroes of every Olympics: the volunteers.
Thousands of them, all issued the same shirts (purple, in this case) and khakis and a pair of gray Adidas shoes. You just know, when they signed up to work the Olympics, they envisioned themselves leading Usain Bolt to the starting line or making sure Jessica Ennis had a fresh bottle of water handy. Most of them, alas, end up like Mohamed and Mark.
They were assigned to man the bus stop outside the University of East London. All day, they check credentials and make sure only accredited media get on the buses to the Olympic Park.
They are making the best of it.
They couldn’t look much more different. Mark looks like a bloke you’d see in the throng on the Fulham football grounds (he actually has season tickets), singing and swaying and holding a pint. Mohamed looks like a student you’d see in a youth hostel, trying to find a decent wireless signal. But they have bonded at their lonely bus stop.
There is a half hour between buses, so they’ve had to. Still, they love when the half hour rolls around and people start showing up. They seize the chance to break up the monotony and get to know people.
My first encounter, they made the usual chitchat about what events I was going to and which venues I’d seen. Mohamed leaned in to read my credential.
“You’re from Philadelphia?” he said.
He immediately looked like he was going to laugh, but he held it in.
Mark picked up on this. “What?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Mohamed said. But he still looked like he had a laugh fighting to get out.
Finally, he couldn’t help himself. “In West Philadelphia born and raise,” he started rapping, “On the playground where I spent most of my days…”
Mark looked perplexed at first, then you saw it click.
“I got in one little fight and my mom got scared,” Mark chimed in.
“Yeah, yeah, the Fresh Prince!”
Ah, yes. The Fresh Prince. I assumed my Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce persona.
“Right! Will Smith is from Philadelphia,” I told them.
“He is?” Mark said. “Of course he is” Mohamed said.
“That’s what that whole show was about … ` I whistled for a cab and when it came near…’ “
“I guess that makes sense,” Mark said.
He watched Mohamed working out the next line from my memory.
“You know what that is, don’t you?” he said to me. “That’s a product of a misspent youth.”
The bus came. They were still trying to piece the theme song together, another half hour successfully filled.