Septuagenarian loving life as volunteer ‘rock star’
June 21  14:45

MINSK - Simon CLEGG (GBR), the Minsk 2019 executive director, made it clear in his opening press conference on Thursday that there would be no Games without the 7,800 volunteers already in place. For one of those priceless people, the next 10 days are part of a second shot at life. 

“I have been diagnosed with breast cancer three times since 2000, the last time 18 months ago,” Britain’s Judith GUNION said. “Since then there has been no more plan Bs, it’s all plan A. You just never know.”

The 72-year-old first discovered an appetite for voluntary work almost seven years ago when the Olympic Games arrived in London and she has not stopped since, criss-crossing the globe to help facilitate some of the world’s biggest sporting events. 

For the tireless septuagenarian the benefits have flown both ways. 

“I see sports as part of the healing process,” GUNION said. “I get to have experiences other people never have – like here I am staying with a Russian family who speak no English. I am picking up a new word every day and we are communicating. 

“I’ve got a life now I never thought ordinary people could have.” 

The Ipswich resident likes, on average, to work at four international sporting events – from European Games to world championships – and around eight British ones each year. It is a schedule her friends and family still find hard to comprehend. 

“They call it the rock star lifestyle,” GUNION said, before revealing that the minutiae of her daily life when she is on tour is far from glamorous – and that is just how she likes it. 

“Since I have been here I have been getting into the rhythm of the city, commuting in like everyone else and buying groceries like everyone else. I love it,” she said. “I am a real people watcher too.” 

The former journalist, who became a sports massage therapist after retiring in 2008, is now a mixed zone specialist, steering global sports stars towards the hungry press. While she has become used to dealing with some of the biggest names in sport, GUNION does concede that there is still the odd moment when she has to pinch herself. 

“I was working at the 2017 World (Athletics) Championships in London and on the night of the 100m final my job was to walk 3m ahead of Usain BOLT (JAM) and make sure no one asked him for a selfie – I was Usain BOLT’s wingman,” GUNION said, the wonder still evident in her voice. 

“He is one of the nicest people I have ever met.”

As Minsk 2019 boss CLEGG stressed, volunteers are the lifeblood of all modern major championships and for GUNION and her peers, the respect and appreciation they receive are hugely gratifying. 

“In Rio (at the 2016 Olympic Games) the organisers listened to my advice on what we should do with the photo truck and they changed the way they did it between the women’s and the men’s road race,” GUNION said.

“I might be a volunteer but people listened to me and I am quite proud of that.” 

The British woman has generated plenty of interest among her colleagues in Minsk, with many of what she calls “the youngsters” amazed at her dedication and commitment.

The epitome of the spirit driving the second European Games forwards, GUNION will be on hand at the Dinamo Stadium throughout the next 10 days, before heading to the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, and then onwards, she hopes to Tokyo for the Olympic Games next year. 

“It takes some planning, I have to work hard and make sacrifices to manage it all,” she said. “But to go to Tokyo would just be mega.” 

GNS ln/wh/sg