A year on from London 2012, what is the real legacy of the Olympics?

One idea is that the Olympics have inspired us to be something we never thought possible, for each of us to achieve our own personal best

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What’s the point of the Olympic legacy? Many would argue that London 2012 was nothing more than bread and circuses: that ultimately it was a diversion, no matter how inspiring, from Britain’s current social and economic mire. I would argue, though, that this is an unnecessarily grim and narrow view: and that the real legacy of London 2012 was not to do with athletic achievement, but with storytelling. 

The Olympic opening ceremony, masterfully crafted by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce, was to me as memorable a moment of the Games as any sporting endeavour. Its narrative was one of inclusion, and one which millions of Britons found both compelling and resonant. A year later, when several leading figures in the country seem determined to advance a narrative of division, it is vital that we keep relating tales of a common cause, like the one so thrillingly curated by Boyce and Boyle. At a time when rhetoric about immigrants, and the unemployed has taken an unpleasant turn, we should be looking to advance stories that represent the best of our nature, that emphasise what we can achieve collectively.

Stories aren’t just a series of escapist words and images.  In so many ways, they define us: and, encouragingly, there seems to be a great appetite for them. A recent YouGov poll found that 64 per cent of adults felt that the Olympics and Paralympics were about more than just sport, and that 65 per cent of adults agreed it was important to keep the spirit of 2012 alive.

That “spirit of 2012” was about everyone contributing to a greater whole; whether they were among the hundreds of athletes, the thousands of volunteers, or the millions of spectators either fortunate enough to be in the stadium or, though no less fervent, far further afield, in front of their TVs. It’s not just the sport we miss, it’s the atmosphere, the greater cause, of all of us putting aside our differences to be proud to be British. It wasn’t just the athletes who achieved their personal bests amongst medals and world records. It was all of us, all of us playing a small part in putting our British Olympics together.

How can we keep the spirit of 2012? One idea is that the Olympics have inspired us to be something we never thought possible, for each of us to achieve our own personal best. That was the thinking behind Britain’s Personal Best, anyway, a national campaign supported by the Big Lottery Fund, which challenges everyone in the UK to surpass their own personal best in any area of their choosing, be it sport, enterprise, art, or just something plan scary –  I’m taking on a challenge to perform my own songs in public – something that fills me with almost primordial fear, but that will make me feel once-in-a lifetime amazing if I manage to pull it off.

We are hoping that the Britain’s Personal Best project will uncover some of the best stories not yet told, and provide parallel narratives to those negative stances too often taken throughout our media. For example, while we frequently denigrate young people in the inner cities, we fail to celebrate their entrepreneurial spirit that has made the urban music scene one of Britain’s most successful exports. At other times – as shown by the backlash against Mary Beard’s rising media profile - we fail to acknowledge the value that older people, through their wisdom and experience, bring to our society.

One year since London 2012 is as good a moment as any, then, to bring some much-need positive nuance to this chapter of modern Britain: in the words of our new video “to make Olympians out of regular people”. Because London 2012 wasn’t just about the stadiums and the results, it was about stories, stories that were about us, and that inspired us. If we are to tell stories about ourselves, then, following the lead of Boyce and Boyle, I propose that they should consist of countless paragraphs of wonder.

Britain’s Personal Best mass participation weekend takes place around the UK 4 – 6 October 2013. Sign up now to take part at www.whatsyours.org.

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