Aug. 19, 2016
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— At the world’s biggest sports stage, Illinois Wesleyan University student Juntian Wei ’19 has taken selfies with Olympic gold medalists and witnessed the performance of a trailblazer from his home country.
Yet he said the most amazing experience he’s had at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero was to make it possible for an emotional mother to congratulate her son moments after his Olympic event.
It’s all in a day’s work for Wei, an Illinois Wesleyan chemistry major and native of Liuzhou, China. During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Wei fell in love with basketball and dreamed of one day competing himself.
To volunteer in Rio may be as close as he will come, but Wei has gladly traveled more than 5,000 miles at his own expense to be a part of history. He has worked 7-hour shifts each day as a volunteer for the equestrian events. Some days he is a sort of equestrian traffic cop, ensuring the horses have the right of way as they move from a holding area to the arena. On other shifts he has monitored gates allowing only Olympic personnel can enter. That’s where he had to bar a non-credentialed mother of an Irish athlete from the backstage area.
“To fulfill this mom’s wish, we brought the son to meet her and we could see how proud she was when she saw her own son competing in the most important sport event in the world,” said Wei.
Taking photos with medalists is a perk for the nearly 50,000 volunteers in Rio. Wei met Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin, who won her third gold medal in individual dressage; American Allison Brock, a member of the bronze medal-winning U.S. dressage team, and perhaps most important for Wei, watching Alex Hua Tian, the only Chinese event rider competing internationally. “It is indeed an honor to see the hero from your own country, especially when equestrian is not popular at all there,” said Wei.
Volunteers are allowed to keep their uniform kits, which include shirts, pants, a jacket, bag and water bottle. They also receive two free tickets to an event that is randomly assigned. Wei gave his tickets, to handball, to his Airbnb host. (Volunteers are responsible for their own lodging, too).
It’s been a long journey for Wei, who turned in his volunteer application nearly two years ago. “It was my dream to participate in the Olympics since I was a child,” he said. “This is an experience that is going to be very influential throughout my lifetime.”