The Intrepid Interpreter

Speaking over 10 languages and collecting Olympic moments along the way, Aberra Aguegnehu is a larger-than-life presence at the Olympic Village. Story sponsored by GE.

Rio de Janeiro— It is somewhat unusual to think of an Olympic champion who has never competed. However, when someone has volunteered at 14 editions of the Olympic Games, both summer and winter – a life-achievement gold medal should be in the works. 

That "Olympic" champion goes by the name of Aberra Aguegnehu, 68, an Israeli with Ethiopian origin who strides through the Olympic Village always wearing his inseparable hat, donning dozens of pins from several past editions of the Games. Aguegnehu is always communicative and charismatic, a trait he has been imprinting in his work as a volunteer since Los Angeles 1984.

Aberra Aguegnehu arrives at Rio 2016 Olympic Village

After moving from Israel to LA in 1982, Aguegnehu was first assigned to work as a protocol volunteer with the Saudi delegation at the 1984 Games. By his own account, “nothing much happened,” but his luck changed in 1996. "I used to work at the Biltmore hotel in downtown Los Angeles when it was chosen as the HQ for the International Olympic Committee at the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympic Games. I was chosen to work with the Athletes' Commission,” he recalls.

Along the way, Aguegnehu started to collected pins and pictures from every edition of the games he has worked at, as well as from the many countries that have hosted the events. In his personal journey, he met sporting idols such as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, American boxer Muhammad Ali and Brazilian soccer player Marta, a five-time recipient of the FIFA World Player of the Year award, the Ballon D’Or, among other Olympic legends.

Finding his way in the Babel tower

Aguegnehu continues to go to every edition of the Olympic Games. He never ceases to learn new lessons and he keeps teaching what he knows best: to communicate. Throughout the years, he became an interpreter and learned over 10 languages, including variations of Arabic spoken in different countries. He also speaks Italian, French, Portuguese, English and Mandarin, among others. 

“To learn another language, you must understand what the people from that country feel and like. It’s necessary to have a sixth sense to be an interpreter, to know when and what you should say.”

True Olympic spirit

As time passed, Aguegnehu also collected stories that he shares with his colleagues. There is one he is particularly fond of. 

“In 1996 I helped this athlete from Venezuela, a cyclist, who arrived in Atlanta without his bicycle. He only spoke Spanish. I went with him to the airport to straighten things out and found out that many athletes who boarded the same flight from Venezuela had their equipment loaded on a different plane. The manager at the airport assured the athlete and me that within two days he would have his bike delivered to his room at the Olympic Village.”

“Sixteen years later, at London 2012, I hear someone calling me by my first name. I turn around. The closer he gets, the more I start to recognize the face. It was the same athlete that I helped in 1996 to find his bicycle, coming to say ‘thank you’ 16 years later. What is amazing about this is that he remembered my name and spoke to me in perfect English, a language he didn't know a word of back in 1996. A moment like this is worth more than money. He said to me ‘in 1996 I was a cyclist but now I'm a coach and I speak English,’ Unfortunately, he's not in Rio.”

“For me, this symbolizes the Olympic spirit, always looking to help others.” 

Passing the baton

As a mentor for new generations, Aguegnehu helps and leads other volunteers, athletes and Rio 2016 staff. “I'm now at my 14th Olympic Games edition. Three reasons keep me coming back. First, the volunteers, who are the backbone of the Olympic Games, and with whom you create new friendships and rekindle old ones. It’s like an Olympic torch that is never extinguished – the flame is always lit in your heart. Second, and what I like about the Olympics, is when I enter the Olympic Village and see more than 200 countries gathered under one roof. For me, it's a sight to be hold. You ask yourself, ‘why is it only 17 days, and not an eternity?’. Lastly, I like to learn about the host city, about the culture, its people, but you can only assess (what you learn) at the end of the Games”.

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