Or what happens when an American girl travels to Azerbaijan to make sure the world’s best athletes are not cheating.
Azerbaijan. When I first heard this word I had no idea what it was. Could it be a disease, the written version of someone sneezing, or maybe a tropical dance? To my surprise, Azerbaijan is a country that is located in the Middle East but it’s considered a part of Europe. It borders the Caspian Sea to the east, and has Iran to the south, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northeast and Armenia to the west. I first heard of this mysterious country about a year ago, when my boyfriend’s parents decided to move to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, to work for the inaugural European Games.
I like to think of myself as a person with pretty good geography skills, but this country stumped me. I literally knew nothing about it. However, the longer they lived there, the more I learned about Azerbaijan and the more my curiosity about the place grew. A former area occupied by the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has faced war, prosperity, depression, and corruption, but today, Azerbaijan is a country that is trying to get on the world stage. Hosting the European Games is a stepping stone to get there. I had been told that Baku is a bustling city with nonexistent traffic laws, the most hospitable and gentle people, and a place where old history and new technology meet. I wanted to see for myself what this mysterious country was all about, so when I was offered the opportunity to be a volunteer for the Games, I immediately signed up, and two flights and 14 hours later, I landed in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan, with absolutely no idea what I was getting into.
Upon my arrival to Baku, the only information I had received about the volunteer position was that I would be a “doping chaperone.” That was it. The information was so vague I didn’t really know what to expect on my first day of work other then I would probably be involved in some sort of drug testing.
At least that sounded interesting.
I arrived at European Games Park at the swimming and diving venue for my first day and received very short but concise instructions on what I was supposed to do. Basically my job was to inform the athlete that they have been randomly selected for a drug test, and then to follow them around until they were tested by a doping control officer.
Sounded easy enough.
Three hours later, I discovered that there were a number of athletes who didn’t speak English, so my phrase “Hello, you have been selected for a drug test” turned into a game of charades where I would use exaggerated hand motions to get across what I needed to say. The charades game would continue before I begged the athlete to please bring a translator. Then, instead of going straight to the doping control office, where they would actually do the test, as I thought, I ran after the athlete as I followed her to media, the medal ceremony, back to interviews, to the changing room, to her coaches, and then finally to the doping control office, where we would wait together until the athlete was ready to do the test. During this time, I watched the athlete drink at least six bottles of water, and if she spoke English, I asked questions about what it was like to be athlete, I asked about the rules of diving, what it was like to compete in Baku, and by the end of my shift, I was an expert on diving with a new friend from a different country.
The language barrier has been difficult sometimes, but this experience has so far fulfilled all of my expectations. I get to be up close with the amazing athletes, and I get to watch them compete directly from the field of play. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and as the games wrap up on June 28th, I know I am going to return with many hilarious, outrageous memories to share.
Look for part 2 in this series coming soon.