Michael Vitez: Philadelphia native helping as a volunteer at the Olympics

Vuong Tong, a volunteer at the Olympics, with U.S. beach volleyball stars Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings (right).
Vuong Tong, a volunteer at the Olympics, with U.S. beach volleyball stars Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings (right).
Posted: August 09, 2012

Vuong Tong, Philadelphia born and raised, graduated in 2008 from the University of the Arts and moved to London a year ago to attend the University of the Arts there, no relation other than in name. He was swept up in the spirit of the Olympic Games and volunteered.

Tong, 26, worked as a marshal at the opening ceremonies. He helped parade teams from North Korea, Micronesia, and the United States on the long walk from the Olympic Village to the Olympic Stadium for the ceremony. He got to meet and pose for photos with several stars. The photos alone are priceless.

He also got to chat with water polo player Peter Varellas, who told him there was no air conditioning in the Olympic Village, and with diver Kristian Ipsen, who asked where to go party after the competition. Tong told him East London is the place to be. Tong posed for pictures with Kerry Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, the beach volleyball stars, shot-putter Michelle Carter, and athletes from several countries.

He took his job as marshal very seriously.

At one point, he saw a Serbian athlete leaving the line to visit a group of children along the parade route.

"I'm sorry, sir, but you have to keep moving," Tong told the Serbian, who just happened to be world tennis star Novak Djokovic.

"I didn't recognize him," Tong said in a phone interview (free for him via Google voice) Wednesday from London. "I kind of told him off."

Djokovic protested, Tong said, saying. "I want to say hi to the children. How come you're not letting me?"

The Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion "huffed and puffed and walked away," Tong said, "and I realized who it was and what I'd done. I pushed through the other stream of athletes and came up to him and told him, 'I'm sorry. I didn't realize who you were.' "

Tong wanted a photo with Djokovic, who refused. Tong recalls the tennis star telling him, "I can't after you told me off." But being an American, Tong says, "I took the photo anyway. He still managed to smile. I would have been a little nicer to him, but I was doing my job."

Tong has also been volunteering every day in catering, helping to feed the 7,000 volunteers rehearsing for the closing ceremony. In addition to volunteering full time, he happens to be working on his dissertation and looking for a job for when he graduates.

"The course I'm studying is innovation management," he explained. "How to identify opportunities and then capitalize on them. It's called newness."

He definitely believes he's part of a "greater cause" and "celebrating human accomplishment."

"I wouldn't say it's fun," he said of his Olympic experience. "It's valuable, priceless actually. I can tell other people that I was there and part of it and made it happen."

Here is an observation I don't think I've read anywhere else. These aren't just the London Olympics. They're the man-hug Olympics. Michael Phelps hugs. The water polo players hug - and they hug in just the little old-fashioned tiny Speedos. In beach volleyball, the best player in the world, Alison Cerutti of Brazil, a macho man, 6-feet-8, bearded, hugs his teammate, Emanuel Rego. And Wednesday during and after the Italian volleyball team beat the United States, players hugged like mad, especially Luigi Mastrangelo, a rugged 36-year-old manly man. I saw Britain's Peter Wilson put down his shotgun and hug his coach after winning gold in men's double trap.

Now, it's not a surprise to see synchronized swimmers holding hands as they get out of the water and await their scores. There are butt smacks by women in volleyball and high fives by both genders in tennis. Athletes kiss their horses and hurdles and medals and the ground beneath their feet. But I can't recall so much hugging in an Olympic Games.

I'm all for hugging, by the way. Much of the hugging is international. Italians and Americans hugged after Wednesday's quarterfinal volleyball match. Olympic hugging can only help foster world harmony. But I need a hugging scholar. What is the evolution of the athletic hug?

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @michaelvitez.


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