BEIJING (Reuters) - At 6.30 a.m., with the moon still in the sky and the temperature a bone-chilling minus 10 degrees Celsius, 1,040 Chinese are ushered into lines by military police at a university sports ground.
The “cadres,” or leaders, of the volunteer program for the Beijing Olympics are preparing for their 20-minute morning run as they near the end of a one-week Winter Training Camp at a campus some 50 kilometers north of the city centre.
Volunteers, unpaid and self-supporting, have become an integral part of the Olympics over the last few decades and Beijing is recruiting a record 100,000 for the Summer Games in August and the following Paralympics.
Aged between 17 and 54, the volunteers at the camp at Geely University include mothers and daughters and husbands and wives, although most are students like Li Jialin.
“Working for the Olympics is a unique experience and memory, an inspiration of my whole life,” the Tsinghua University student told Reuters.
After the early morning run was a pre-breakfast test, one of four each day where volunteers must recite English sentences or paragraphs they have been taught, in this case “Hello Mr Johnson, welcome to Beijing.”
The penalty for failure is harsh; the whole class might miss a meal or be prevented from returning to the dormitory, where six people shared three bunk beds.
“They all work very hard for themselves and also for the whole team so nobody has actually starved,” said Li Jingmin, the training officer of Media Operation Class II.
There are no mistakes this time and Li Jingmin tells his 30 charges to queue outside the two-storey canteen, where they tried to out-shout other classes with Olympic-themed slogans.
The food is simple, the camp uniform thin and uncomfortable and the heating in the dormitories inadequate, although quilts were brought in after several volunteers caught colds.
“It is tough but I’ve been so kind and gentle with them,” Li said with a laugh. “We are human-oriented.
“And I have to say, it’s much easier than army training,” he added.
About half of the time, the volunteers learned English but there were also lessons in how to take care of disabled people and how to fend off sexual harassment.
Li Yang, the controversial teacher famous in China for his “Crazy English” method, masterminded the language learning in the university’s lecture hall.
“How - many - people - does - this - stadium - hold?” he shouted, tapping his head, chest and leg to indicate the “subject,” “verb” and “object” of a sentence.
An American was called up on stage to say: “I hope you’ll like China and understand China the way I do.” The 500 students repeated the sentence over and over again.
A few months ago, Li Yang was criticized in the Chinese media after he got 3,000 students to bow down on their knees in front of him in the traditional kowtow to show their “appreciation.” But the students say he is popular for his “effective” teaching.
Li Jialin, who was a volunteer at the hockey and tennis Olympic test events last year, has seen many of his peers fall by the wayside since he joined the program in 2006.
“Some failed to take enough courses, some did not meet the attendance request of training, others were busy with their studies so they quit,” he said.
“But I’ll stick it out ... although the training takes up so much time, the test events were exhausting and this training camp is so difficult ... I enjoy it.
“The Olympics is a big event and I feel honored to work for it. My body is exhausted but in my heart I am enjoying it.”
Not all of the volunteers will have as intensive training as Li Jialin, who has undergone hundreds of hours of classes over the last two years.
Ordinary volunteers, 20 percent of whom have yet to be selected, may have only a few lectures and nothing like the Winter Training Camp.
“I am affected by their passion,” said Zhang Jumin, deputy director of the volunteer department of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG).
“I believe this young generation, who have grown up in the baptism of the Olympics, will definitely play a big role in society after they enter it.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Megan Goldin