Moppers Sop Up Players' Perspiration, Wear Socks at Regulation and Don't Talk
LONDON—As sweat beaded on the forehead of Chinese badminton superstar Lin Dan inside Wembley Arena last week at the 2012 Olympics, Great Britain's Ainsley Richards prepared to leap into action on the court.
Her task wasn't to return Mr. Lin's shuttlecock. It was mopping up his sweat from the floor.
Ms. Richards, 17 years old, is part of a 30-person specially trained janitorial team responsible for keeping Olympic badminton players from slipping. (click below to read more)
"It is not the most glamorous job," says Ms. Richards, herself an elite badminton player in the Welsh league, "but we're on TV—and we're in the Olympics."
Perhaps the most high-profile volunteer job at the Olympics belongs to the moppers, responsible for keeping courts dry in sweaty sports such as badminton, volleyball, team handball and basketball.
Other volunteer custodians share the limelight as they keep courts in order. That includes the rakers, who tidy up pits in the sand during beach-volleyball matches. They run onto the fake beach near Buckingham Palace while the old Boots Randolph song "Yakety Sax," familiar from the "Benny Hill Show," blares.
But the moppers are particular stars among the 70,000 so-called Games Makers working these Olympics. During badminton matches, some eager Chinese spectators yell "court mopper, jia you!" or, "court moppers, go for it!"
At indoor volleyball, moppers get introduced just like the players. "We run through the cheerleaders, who shake their pompoms above our heads, make us feel like royalty," says mopper Josh Kirk, 18.
"We walk to the center of the court and do a two-handed wave, which for cool, trendy 17- and 18-year-olds is quite embarrassing," he says. "But it's part of the job. You milk it a bit."
At basketball games, a team of "Magic Moppers" hits the court during breaks pretending to wipe up sweat, only to begin break dancing. They are actually professional dancers, dressed and equipped like ordinary moppers.
There was fierce competition for many of the mopper roles, with volunteers chosen based on their background of community service and sporting leadership. Some 15 groups of six applied for the three groups of students chosen to mop badminton courts; volleyball had 100 16-person teams apply for just three student group spots. Team handball has 36 volunteer moppers, while basketball has 68.
Then came months of training. Olympic badminton held five training sessions for moppers, starting with one focused on building the right attitude and not looking bored.
That was followed by a series of classes reviewing the basics of badminton mopping. The volunteers, who work in teams of two, must stay synchronized as they cross the court, covering as much as possible in 40 seconds during a break after one team reaches 11 points.
"You have to go like lightning—you feel like Usain Bolt mopping," says Ms. Richards. Staying in sync is difficult, she adds, because athletes on either side of the court produce different amounts of sweat.
Equipped with specialized microfiber mopheads on sticks, badminton moppers must also stand ready to provide spot-cleaning at any point during the match. Sly badminton players are known to attempt to take extra—and illegal—breaks by asking moppers to do spot cleans. Instructors emphasized to the moppers to only take orders from umpires, who sometimes disregard player requests.
Basketball moppers are given more leeway to mop the floor as needed, even if officials haven't requested it. "We try to stay out of the way—it would be a disaster if we got caught in a game," said mopper Chris Stainton, 22, from Manchester.
Under a self-imposed code of conduct, female volleyball moppers in a crew from Sheffield have their hair fastened in a bun, and all have shirts tucked in and socks folded over once.
Badminton volunteers must keep their hands at their sides and must not look players in the eye. "We are also not allowed to offer the athletes any tactical advice," says mopper Samuel Bevan, 18, from Carmarthen in Wales. "That was a disappointment. But it is easy, because I am terrified of these people."
The no-contact rule was more of a challenge for his mopping partner, Ms. Richards, when gold medalist Mr. Lin thanked her for her services on court. "I couldn't say anything back. I tried to stifle a smile, but how can you not smile at Lin Dan? I'm in love," she says. "I was so close to him, but so far away."
The Sheffield volleyball moppers practiced for nine months at a gym with supermarket mops and a stopwatch. Indoor volleyball employs a two-pronged system of quick moppers—who soak up the spot where an athlete slid or landed—and big moppers, six-strong teams that wipe the entire court during 30-second play stoppages. Moppers rotate into the six-sweeper rotation, aiming to turn the three mops on either side into one continuous mop.
"There's a lot of hard work put in and a lot of—what's the word?—confidence-building to make sure that we believed that we could do it," says Mr. Kirk.
Moppers compete again, too, for the chance work gold-medal matches. The teams in the volleyball court are waiting nervously until Wednesday, when they find out who got the plum championship assignments on Saturday and Sunday. Match supervisors, who will make the decision, say there are no formal criteria for selection but speed is essential.
Like all athletic pursuits, stretching is important in Olympic mopping. "It might sound ridiculous, but people do pull muscles and strain things by mopping the floor, because it is intense," says Jay Roper, a leader of the team of volleyball moppers from Sheffield.
One sweeper went down with a swollen ankle—an overuse injury—but was cleared by a doctor after sitting out a match. "He's leading the team by example now," Mr. Roper said.
There is also a dehydration risk, as temperatures at the indoor badminton arena have soared past 85 degrees, thanks in part to a bank of spotlights used by TV crews and limited air conditioning, which could impact shuttlecocks.
But moppers don't mind the heat.
"They're all so excited it is so warm" says badminton field-of-play group leader Fern Gilders, "because it means that players sweat more."