This time last year we were starting to notice them, hovering singly or in little groups, clad in striking, but not entirely flattering, pink and purple. Then, suddenly, there were legions of them – as many as 70,000 altogether – swarming around the Olympic venues and fanned out across the capital. They were happy, helpful and positive – all the qualities that big city life, London’s included, so often lacks.
It’s worth recalling the pre-Olympic mood. There was pervasive cynicism, especially among the chattering classes who make much of the media weather. There was the last-minute hitch, which seemed a lot more than that, when the private company, G4S, admitted that it could not supply the contracted number of security people. And there was the football match, two days before the official start, when the wrong Korean flag was screened, and only summit-level diplomacy coaxed North Korea on to the pitch. Right, the consensus went: this really is going to be a Great British disaster.
Then came the triumphant opening ceremony, on Friday 27 July, when we suddenly dared hope that it might just turn out not too badly after all. Danny Boyle had conceived a pageant that encapsulated a whole new national idea; and then there was the pink-and-purple army showing visitors the way, directing the fortunate ticket-holders to their seats and showing a whole new face of Britain.
The volunteers – especially the cheerleading Games Makers with their unaffected enthusiasm and their huge foam hands, but also City Hall’s London ambassadors, of whom I was one, and Transport for London’s own pink-tabarded brigade – were hailed as the heroes of the Games. At the closing ceremony, mention of the volunteers elicited a cheer louder than for either the athletes or the organisers. We/they had vindicated the Olympic Committee’s gamble that cosmopolitan London would throw off its inhibitions and welcome the world. In sheer numbers and energy we were also a living, breathing, smiling reproach to those who had forecast that London 2012 would be an over-commercialised failure.
That 70,000 individuals, of all ages, colours and backgrounds, were prepared to give up some of their time to the London Olympics was hugely impressive, but even this was not the whole picture. Many, many more had expressed an interest, before the numbers were whittled down; and many others said afterwards that they wished they had.
An enthusiast from the moment London mounted its bid, I had scanned the internet from early on to see what sort of volunteering opportunities there might be. So, it turned out, had many thousands of others. The recruitment operation was vast, from registration through rudimentary selection to three training days. Needless to say, such formidable organisation does not come cheaply – although the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Locog) has not publicly put a figure on it.
Eventually, our uniforms – those pink and purple outfits – were delivered to us, and then we had to pick up our ID, hats and transport cards in relays from City Hall. It was really only then that we began to glimpse the scale of the undertaking. While some were committed to the whole summer, many of us were taking time off from our jobs and volunteering for only a week or so. No matter. Everyone seemed delighted just to be there, and that feeling was reciprocated many times over.
One reason for the popularity of the volunteers, I am convinced, is that suddenly there was a reassuring and benevolent presence on the streets and at the venues. Even crowded places can feel intimidating if you are not certain where to go, and CCTV is no substitute for individuals taking responsibility. Whether it was troops and police or volunteers, here were real people trying to do their bit to help. We volunteers pooled the compliments we received, and savoured the free coffees, with amazed appreciation.
But no sooner had the Olympics and the Paralympics closed and the last notes of the celebratory parades faded, than a new question was posed, which has loomed over the past months of nostalgia: how that spirit can be kept alive and perhaps channelled into new and existing charitable efforts. The ambition was understandable. After all, here were tens of thousands of people who had given their time and enjoyed themselves. At very least that offered a vast database of public spiritedness.
A year on, though, the results appear distinctly mixed. Some people have indeed transferred their volunteering enthusiasm elsewhere, with sports and youth projects the main beneficiaries. But the majority have not. In research carried out by YouGov in May for Join In, the Olympic legacy charity, 29 per cent of adults surveyed said that the Games Makers had positively changed the way they viewed volunteering. However, 51 per cent said that they did not even know where to find out about local volunteering opportunities, and only 2 per cent had actually done more volunteering as a result of London 2012.
Separate research by Join In suggested that, by May, the Games Makers themselves had contributed more than 800,000 extra volunteering hours since the end of the Games. But hopes that the Olympic volunteering spirit would effect a wider transformation remain, at the time of writing, no more than hopes.
Perhaps that stems from a failure on our part, and also on the part of the Olympic organisers, to identify a new, big idea with which the 2012 volunteers could associate themselves. Also, though, I suspect it reflects a misreading of how transferable that enthusiasm for a once-in-a-lifetime mega-event really is.
London 2012 was a glorious one-off. Its tangible spin-offs – the “legacy” – are likely to be in the housing and facilities left by the Games, and in the memories of those who, in one capacity or another, took part.
Some of us will be back in uniform for a week or two this summer, as part of the Team London 2013 scheme, whereby, from 27 July to 9 September, 900 London Ambassadors will return to key transport hubs and prime tourist sites across the capital, offering help and directions to visitors.
That should make London a friendlier, more sympathetic, place than it often seems, and I hope this is something other UK tourist centres tap into. In the same period, Join In is running the Join In Summer 2013 event, which aims to offer 5,000 local volunteering events around the UK for members of the public to sign up to. Perhaps that will spark an explosion of enthusiasm. Otherwise, the Games Makers’ brief encore will seem a modest legacy indeed to those who saw them as the start of a new nationwide volunteer corps.
Some will say a chance has been missed, despite the attempts of many charities to attract Olympics volunteers and despite the appointment by the Mayor of London of a volunteering “tsar” to coordinate efforts.
Others, perhaps more realistically, might argue that the uniqueness of the Olympics meant that such a chance was never really there.
CASE STUDIES: THE YOUTH VOLUNTEERING CHARITY
TERRY RYALL, CEO of vInspired
Terry Ryall, founder of vInspired, a charity that helps young people to volunteer by connecting them with volunteering opportunities, expected a surge of new enthusiasm after London 2012, but it has so far failed to materialise. “We actually have to work very hard to keep the levels where they are,” she says.
More than 144,000 people aged 14 to 25 use vInspired to volunteer, via more than 2,500 charities. It’s an impressive number, but with plenty of room for growth. Ryall welcomed the Games as a great showcase for community engagement. But, she says: “There’s conflicting evidence about their immediate legacy. In April 2013 there was a Community Life survey which showed 72 per cent of people had volunteered at least once in the past 12 months, up from 65 per cent in 2010-11. Then there was an NFPsynergy survey saying that numbers hadn’t changed at all: 70 per cent of adults said the Olympics hadn’t inspired them to volunteer more, and just 2 per cent had started volunteering as a result of the Games.”
Meanwhile, she welcomes the less visible social capital that has been developed. “The formation of the Games Maker Choir and the Pandemonium Drummers who played at the opening ceremony, for example. These people didn’t know each other before, but they have become bona fide organisations and go about volunteering at different events.
“Also, people who volunteered for the Games have got a taste for big events now, so some have applied to be volunteers at events like the Commonwealth Games. All sorts of legacies are beginning to develop, but it’s quite a complex picture, and it will take longer for the legacy to emerge clearly.”