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Volunteer remembers 1984 Games as Olympics come to end

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Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:23 am, Tue Aug 14, 2012.

The 2012 Summer Olympics have come and gone, leaving memories and new world records for athletes around the globe. But there's another group of people who, after each Games, have their own adventures to remember. They are the volunteers who work behind the scenes and blend into the crowd on camera to keep the Games running smoothly.

One Lodi woman's recollection of her work at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles still evokes strong emotions.

Brenda Akin (then Herchenbach) was working as a business office manager for AT&T in San José when word came around that the Olympic Games needed volunteers. She and her roommate, Jennifer Just, put in their names and were selected for the extensive interview process. Three rounds later, they were cleared to spend two weeks in Southern California as communications specialists for the games.

"Walking the streets in uniform, everyone knew who you were," said Akin. "It was amazing."

Akin and Just were stationed in the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles as members of the communications operations team. They wore bright green polo shirts and track suits to identify themselves as volunteers.

When each round of archery, diving or any other competition was completed, the final scores and tallies were emailed to a central computer at the hotel. Akin complied all the day's results for a given sport and input the data into another computer.

Athletes would wander in and out of the office to check on their scores and that of the competition.

Married track and field stars Al Joyner and Florence "Flo-Jo" Griffith-Joyner came in together to pick up their scores each day.

Athletes today are a far cry from those Akin watched in 1984.

"They're so much more advanced. They've come such a long way," said Akin, adding that competitors in the 2012 Games are stronger and have more stamina. They also conducted themselves with respect and decorum, she noticed.

"They were all just there as professionals," she said. "There were no losers, it seemed. They all acted like winners."

In 1984, the two friends arranged to work the same hours so they could take in the Olympics together. As volunteers, they had passes that allowed free entry into any event.

The pair watched whatever competition they happened upon, from rowing to archery.

"I don't really care for archery, but we watched it. It was somehow different, because of the excitement," Akin said.

The adventure wasn't without its headaches. Traffic was claustrophobic in L.A., and public transit wasn't always reliable to get to work on time, said Akin. She and Just stayed at her grandparent's home in Pasadena during the games. They would commute early in the morning and kill time by walking around downtown.

A major highlight for Akin was the chance to attend the opening ceremony.

Goosebumps spread over Akin's arms as she described the sensation of watching athletes carry the Olympic torch through the arena to the cauldron.

"They talk about world peace, but when you're sitting in that arena it feels like all the world has come together," she said.

Akin also enjoyed meeting and working with Peter Ueberroth, then the president of the Organizing Committee for Summer Olympic Games. The former baseball commissioner would stop by their desks each day to say hello and check in. It left a real impact on the volunteers.

"It was something about his presence, so charismatic. He treated us like equals," said Akin.

Among Akin's mementos is a thank-you note from Ueberroth to the volunteers.

"We couldn't put on the Olympics without volunteers. It wouldn't work. In the eyes of the world, to see a community give so much of itself will be one of the nicest messages that the Olympics Games can relay about Southern California," wrote Ueberroth.

Her time as a volunteer was half a lifetime ago. But Akin doesn't plan to attempt to recreate her Olympic experience. Sitting in the audience like a tourist simply wouldn't be the same.

"When you're a part of it, like I was, you get a whole different experience," she said.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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