What a party! But what now?
Former diplomatic editor of The Times, Michael Binyon, argues that the Olympics showcased the very best of modern multi-cultural Britain, paving the way for investment and future success
The day after the Olympics ended, people in Britain felt as though they had just left the best party of their lives, had a rather sore head and were dreading the return to work.
The London 2012 Games were generally seen, not only by the British but also by scores of other countries, as the most successful for many years. And Britons, whose first instinct was to grumble, complain and voice fears that the Olympics would be a disaster, were euphoric. Amazed that nothing went wrong – no terrorist attacks, no scandals on or off the sporting venues, no disastrous hold-ups in the transport systems – they have, since then, been indulging in a rare burst of pride, patriotism and self-congratulation.
But beneath the triumphant headlines, everyone – politicians, sports authorities and economists – warned the nation that the big challenge of the Olympics was still to come. How can the spirit of optimism, hope and joy which permeated the Games be nourished and put to good use in other ways? What will be the future of the lavish new sports facilities erected in east London, and how can they be properly used? What, in short, will be the future legacy of London’s third Olympic Games in 104 years?
In 2005, London won the Games in Singapore largely because it promised to do what few other Olympic cities have done in the past – take the facilities built to accommodate the world’s athletes for just two weeks and use them after that to make a permanent change to British sports provision and to the training of future athletes. But just as the joy of Singapore was, for London, brutally cut short the next day by the terrorist bombings in the capital on July 7, so the 2012 Games now face the brutal reality of life after the closing ceremony.
Prime Minister David Cameron is fully aware of the task. He knows the country is facing a huge anti-climax. He knows that political bickering will resume, that recent dismal economic figures are piling pressure on the government and that harsher stories will soon fill the space on television and in newspapers occupied for two glorious weeks with pictures and films of Britons winning gold medals.
He moved swiftly, therefore, to announce on the day of the closing ceremony that he had appointed Lord Coe, head of the London Organising Committee, to take responsibility for delivering the promised legacy. As the golden boy of British athletics, Sebastian Coe won gold medals in the 1980 Moscow and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and for the past seven years has passionately lobbied for improvements in British sport, using lottery money to fund more facilities and training. The results have been impressive. In Atlanta in 1996 Britain won one gold medal; in London the country won 29.
Most of the main Olympic buildings have already been earmarked for future use. Some will be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere in the country where there are few good facilities. Most will remain at the heart of the Olympic Village, which will itself become a main sporting venue for London, a training centre for top athletes and a big tourist attraction. It is intended to be open to the public less than a month after the Paralympics, which began on August 29 and ended on September 9.
The key question, however, is money. Will British sport receive the high funding that boosted performance in the run-up to London 2012? The Government had planned a steep cut in the £125 million yearly grant for Olympic sports. Now, with hopes rising for Rio, this has become politically impossible. Funding will be kept at the same level until 2016, and schools will be ordered to include sports training as part of the curriculum for all pupils. The government is also keen to encourage more private sponsorship.
More difficult is the question of maintaining the Olympic spirit. Most commentators have paid special tribute to the 70,000 Games volunteers, of all ages, races and professions, who got up before dawn to take up their positions at Tube stations, first-aid points and pedestrian crossings to guide, help, comfort and encourage the many thousands streaming to the Games. They were picked from around 200,000 people who applied. All were given uniforms. Many were given some training. Is this a model that could be applied to other areas? Could volunteers be encouraged, trained and supported to work in larger numbers in schools, community centres, youth clubs, in the health service and in all the areas where government funding is not enough or is being cut?
Many Britons would like this spirit of altruism to continue. But it is not easy. People will turn out on a special occasion; most are not willing to be recruited as free labour to make up for shortages in schools and hospitals.
Can the Olympic success also be turned into tangible material advantage for Britain? In some ways, the answer is yes. The Games were the best tourist publicity and investment advertising anyone could have wanted. Billions of people across the world saw pictures of London. There is nothing the Government can do about Britain’s poor weather, but it hopes that an image of relaxed friendliness – not the usual picture most foreigners have of Britain – will encourage inward investment. Government ministers used the Games to hold political discussions with dozens of world leaders and also with businessmen visiting London. No new contracts have been announced, but initial contacts have been made in many important fields.
Hopes that the Games would deliver an immediate bonanza to London’s shops were unrealistic and not realised. Few people came to London to go shopping, visit theatres and museums or spend money outside the Olympic venues. London businesses complained that this August was the quietest they had seen for years. Streets were empty, shops deserted. But many visitors may be planning a return at some future date.
Two deeper questions are now being debated in post-Olympic Britain. What have the Olympics done for Britain’s place in the world? And what have they told Britain about its own self-image and its understanding of the kind of society it is today?
The image, most Britons hope, has been improved. But it has also changed. We no longer cultivate the stiff-upper-lipped, tweed-clad imperial stereotype. Instead, as the opening ceremony showed, Britain is very much a multi-cultural nation. Black Britons were essential to Olympic success. Mo Farah, the winner of the 5,000 and 10,000-metre races is hailed today as a great British hero. He is a Muslim who came to Britain as a refugee from Somalia at the age of eight. Coping with the strains of a multi-ethnic and multicultural society has been difficult for many in Britain. But the country believes it has found a new harmony that it is keen to show to the world: tolerance and acceptance have generally worked. Above all, Britain is proud of its sense of humour. Even the Queen took part in the opening ceremony jokes.
This same debate is also going on about the country’s own self-image. Are non-white Britons now fully accepted as equals and welcomed by the white majority as fellow Britons? Are the traditions of tolerance still as strong as ever? Can the idealism of young people prevail over what has become a cynical and often shallow public culture? It proved possible to change the way people behaved towards each other in public during the Games. If that change can be maintained, then the Olympics will have left a permanent and positive legacy.
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