Having survived three political revolutions during the past 30 years, Jim Warburton should have no trouble making it through the Olympic Games as envoy to the Paraguay Olympic team.
Professor of Spanish at Oxford College for the past 25 years, Warburton has traveled extensively in more than 30 nations throughout Latin America, as well as Spain and Portugal. The three revolutions he has experienced include Berlin in 1962, Portugal in 1972 and Nicaragua in 1979.
The scariest travel experience Warburton has ever had, however, occurred in 1981. "I took a group of students to Guatemala for two weeks," he recalled. "This was just after the nuns had been shot in El Salvador. We were driving along and suddenly we were stopped. I have no idea who stopped us, whether they were guerrillas or Guatemalan police, because they wore no insignia. They ordered us out of our van, put us against a wall at machine gun point, and kept us there for half an hour. That day I spoke English very loudly. I made sure they knew where we were from. Finally they told us to get back in the van and leave. We went right to the airport, and I didn't go back to Guatemala for 12 or 13 years."
Keeping up with athletes
Extensive travel experience and Spanish language proficiency are the primary reasons Warburton was selected by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) from a field of 4,000 applicants to serve as one of 197 Olympic envoys (one for each participating nation). Selections were based on group and individual interviews, language proficiency and cultural sensitivity. Warburton sees some irony in his selection as envoy to the Paraguayan team, because Paraguay is one of the few Latin American countries he has never visited. He began working full time for ACOG on June 27 and began living at the Olympic Village at Georgia Tech on July 6.
The Paraguay Olympic team, Warburton said, is expected to consist of six to eight members including two participants each in swimming and athletics (track and field), and one participant each in fencing, judo and sailing. That number is down significantly from the 56-member team Paraguay sent to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. A major reason for the drop, Warburton said, is that Paraguay's soccer team was eliminated in preliminary matches, which meant a loss of more than 20 athletes from the final team.
During the Olympics, Warburton expects to be involved in a variety of activities with the team: making sure the athletes get on the right transportation system at the right time to get to their competitions and practice venues; ordering box lunches for the athletes; helping them get tickets as spectators to various Olympic events; and arranging for passes for visitors from Paraguay.
"It's strictly a volunteer position, but it's also middle management with ACOG," Warburton said. "We represent ACOG, not the country whose athletes we're assisting. We are the go between for any problems that might come up between that country and the Olympic system."
One such problem discussed during the envoys' training of more than two years is the possibility of athletes and others approaching envoys for help in defecting to the United States. "That's a real possibility for anyone who lives and works in the Olympic Village," Warburton said. "A Cuban athlete, for instance, could just as easily approach me as he could the envoy for Cuba and say, `I'm not going back.'"
Warburton also will be involved in planning activities for the president of Paraguay, who is scheduled to arrive July 17 or 18.
The value of language
Warburton's interest in studying and teaching Spanish took root his senior year at Middlebury College in Vermont. His Spanish professor was in a car accident, and Warburton was asked to take over classes for the remainder of the term. "I really loved teaching, but my father had other plans, like law school," he said. Warburton went to law school, but didn't stay long. He worked in military intelligence in Miami for a while before pursuing his master's degree. He received a Ph.D. scholarship to Emory in 1968 and three years later accepted a Spanish faculty position at Oxford.
"I've taught 30 different travel/study courses for Oxford and Emory," Warburton said. "I led a trip to Costa Rica for the Association of Emory Alumni. I've traveled all the way from Mexico to Peru and Brazil, as well as Spain and Portugal, with Oxford students. I also taught in the Emory Summer Abroad Program when it was first beginning in 1974. Last year I received a grant from Oxford to attend a one-month course in Ecuador, where I studied Andean culture, particularly the women of the Andes."
The growing numbers of Hispanic people in the Southeast over the past few years, Warburton said, have contributed to a resurgence in Oxford student interest in the study of the Spanish language and the cultures of those who speak it. "A lot of students now see Spanish as a practical tool," he said. "Twenty-five years ago I think they saw it as an intellectual field that they wanted to be involved in. They were interested in the literature. Today many students are interested in it for strictly professional reasons, whether they are working in a bank or planning on going to medical school."
Regardless of the reasons for student interest in Spanish, Warburton hopes that learning the language will one day give his students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity similar to the one he is now enjoying, even if it means withstanding a few revolutions.