An inspiration for generations to come

Amy McLellan asks whether the Olympic Games could spark a lasting cultural rejuvenation

It's 1984 and Seb Coe is flying down the back straight of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on his way to winning Olympic gold in the 1,500m.

Among those cheering in the UK is a 14-year-old schoolgirl who felt the greatness of Coe's achievement. Twenty years later, she would go on to win her own gold in that same event.

"The 1984 Olympics was a great Games," recalls that schoolgirl , now the world famous Dame Kelly Holmes, who won double gold in the 800m and 1,500m at the Athens Olympics in 2004. "I had already started running and that race really got me going. It was my dream from that moment on."

This is the power of the Olympic Games. And it's why Dame Kelly is so excited that next year the Olympics come to London. "It's just an awesome opportunity for this country," she says.

For her part, Dame Kelly has been mentoring a group of middle distance juniors since 2004, some of whom are now contenders for 2012. "Lots of really talented girls drop out when they are 17 or 18 so I wanted to develop a programme that would help them not only be the best athlete they can be but also equip them with the life skills you need to succeed. It's more than having the right physical attributes, you also need to have the right head space, the confidence and self-belief to really push through the hard times and deal with the health and injury problems."

Dame Kelly speaks from experience; she battled horrific injuries, illness and depression in her 20-year quest for Olympic gold. As she says, getting to the winner's podium is a "big journey".

The lessons learned from that journey are not just valid for aspiring athletes. Dame Kelly's book, Just Go For It! (Hayhouse, £10.99), outlines a six-point plan to help others get motivated and achieve their goals while her charity, the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust, has harnessed the talents of retired sports champions to inspire young people to be the best they can in life.

Adam Whitehead, the former European and Commonwealth champion swimmer, works through the trust with many young people not in education, employment or training to help them turn their lives around.

"It's about using the skills and experiences I've had in my career to re-engage with them and show them a different path," says Whitehead, whose own moment of sporting inspiration came in 1988 , watching Adrian Moorhouse win the 100m gold in the Seoul Olympics. "I had a poster of Adrian of my wall."

He believes London 2012 will be a "once in a lifetime opportunity" for the country and could lead to an unprecedented haul of medals as home support kicks in. But the biggest legacy won't be the brand new facilities or sparkling medals but the "inspiration of this generation to be more active and have a healthier lifestyle".

This really matters. Over 27 million adults in England are not doing enough exercise, with 14 million not even managing half an hour of moderate exercise a week. A sedentary lifestyle increases all sorts of health risks, ranging from heart disease to depression, never mind the example being set to a generation of increasingly overweight children and the burden on the NHS.

Evidence from previous big sporting events suggests that success encourages increased participation at grass roots levels. Cycling is on the rise, partly helped by the GB Cycling Team, which brought home 34 medals from the Beijing Games to become Britain's most successful Olympic and Paralympic sport. Swimming, another top medal event, is already the UK's most popular participation sport, with more than three million people regularly getting in the pool. "The athletes, teams and clubs at grassroots level that we work with tell us that there is always an upsurge in interest in swimming following events such as the Olympics," says Sean Hastings, vice president of product and marketing at Speedo, which sponsors top swimmers such as Rebecca Adlington.

The big question is how to channel Olympic fever into direct participation. Sports scientists at the University of Loughborough have been working with the NHS to develop an online tool ( www.nhs.uk/olympics) to help people find out which sport best suits them. A personality and skills test helps match the user to five sports and guides them to suitable activities in their area via an interactive map featuring links to over 35,000 sports centres and clubs (and evidence shows those who join a club are more likely to sustain their fitness levels). The hope is GPs will direct their more sedentary patients towards the tool. "We're hoping to reach people who don't usually engage with physical activity," says Loughborough's Dr David Fletcher, who reports the tool has already had 16,000 visits in the first four months. "It's another prompt in the right direction."

Increased fitness levels could save the country billions of pounds in health costs. Many are hoping 2012 could have even more profound social impacts. The Olympic Games embodies a range of qualities – honesty, integrity, perseverance and fair play – that are all too often lacking in modern life. "It's going to create a new breed of icons in this country, more wholesome and inspirational than pop stars or disgraced footballers," says Matt Rogan, co-author of Britain and the Olympic Games, Past, Present and Legacy (Troubador Publishing £15.99). "It's not like the instant fame of X Factor. It's about hard work, motivation and picking yourself up when you get knocked back. These are valuable lessons for young people."

Could 2012 mark a turning point in the "me, me, me" culture? The London Olympics, with its army of 70,000 volunteers will demonstrate the value of helping others and getting involved. In keeping with the pledges made during the bid, 100 young people across the UK are being given the chance to develop a range of volunteering opportunities in their local communities. The "young leaders", many of them chosen by children's services departments because of the opportunity to turn a troubled life around, are taking part in an 18-month training programme, with coaching and mentoring provided by employees of project sponsor BP. In 2012, the young people will be able to put their new skills into practice by volunteering at the Games.

"It's their interest in the Games that helps, it means we really have their attention," says a spokesman for the London Organising Committee. "They are genuinely really excited about the opportunity to volunteer at the Games."

This is an example of how this two-week event will have a lasting impact on young people. The memories, experiences and skills gained over the next 18 months will be with them for a life time. That really is a legacy.

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