The volunteering spirit of London Olympics 2012 will perish without a new big idea

It was a wonderful time, that brought out the best in people, but Britain needs a new grand project to harness the communitarian spirit

Share

Scarcely a week passes without a new report on some aspect of the London Olympics or a new event booked into the stadium in Stratford. This week we had both: the Legacy Trust UK published a report that asked “Have we inspired a generation?”. And the stadium was chosen as a venue for the 2015 rugby World Cup. Before then, you can take a tour of the Olympic Park and see how the redevelopment is going. You can book for a rock concert in the stadium. And if you were one of the 70,000 pink-and-purple-clad volunteers, you will still be bombarded with proposals for using your spare time.

Nor is all this Olympic retrospection misguided. Last summer has gone down in the annals of London, the South-east and much of the rest of the country as a magical time, when the UK welcomed the world and everything suddenly went right. There were smiling faces; there was harmony and civility; there were flags; there were medals, and the afterglow lasted long after everyone had gone home. No wonder there is a yen to relive those days.

To my mind, the BBC missed a trick in not simply repeating the whole of its coverage in the gap between the Olympics and the Paralympics. It missed another when it failed to replay the opening ceremony as part of its Christmas programming. And even now, as the memories dim, there remains enormous popular nostalgia. You sensed it all over again at the London marathon. The trouble is that no one seems to know quite what to do with it.

The central question – asked pointedly this week by the Legacy Trust UK, but posed for months by sports groups, arts projects and charities – is how to recapture the so-called “spirit of 2012” in volunteering. The London Olympics persuaded tens of thousands of people, many of them young, to give their time in return for a few training days, a uniform and minimal expenses. The volunteers, as was evident from their reception at the Games and at commemorations since, were a completely unpredicted success of those weeks.

Quite a few, we are told, have subsequently found other outlets for their altruism or expressed a readiness to do so. Yet heads of charities and voluntary organisations seem unsatisfied. It appears they cannot quite understand how such a happy army could be mustered for six weeks or so and then fade into anonymity. What a waste, you can almost hear them say; we could use some of that. So the surveys and the analyses proliferate, and enormous effort is invested in trying to reverse-engineer the London 2012 model of volunteering with a view to mass-producing it across the country. I am not convinced this is a useful approach.

Several features of the London Olympics made it special. One was its uniqueness. Those who did not instinctively dismiss the Games as a waste of space, time and money that was bound to be a disaster understood that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Some even harbour the secret hope that Rio makes such a mess of its preparations that an international consensus begs for a return to London. But that is improbable.

Another was the sense of pride in London – the way the capital’s familiar landmarks and cosmopolitan feel combined. A third was the chance to be part of a simultaneously national and global event, and the fourth was the timescale. Compare the seven years that London had to organise itself, from winning the bid to hosting the world, with the 30 years it will take – so we are told – to build a new London airport or a single high-speed rail line. With the Olympics, most of those involved could be reasonably confident they would see the result of their endeavours.

Other types of volunteering offer their own different rewards. But, for the most part, they are always there. The Olympics were a one-off that London had never really expected to host. A similar, slightly haphazard, slightly amateurish air attached to the success of the volunteers. Any attempt to professionalise or systematise the Olympic volunteering is likely to fail. This is one thing that those trying to coax back to life the “spirit of 2012” have got wrong. But there are others.

One is the theory, peddled repeatedly, that public recognition was a reason why people volunteered, but the hugely positive public response was a delightful surprise – an effect, not a cause. Another is the way moves to capitalise on last summer’s volunteering have been both bureaucratised and allowed to fragment. Legacy Trust UK may be trying to pull the strands together, but many others are muscling in on the act. As for the Mayor of London’s “Tsar” of volunteering, we have heard almost nothing from her since her poorly reviewed appearance before the London Assembly last year. Discussion forums are already stuffed with the predictable great and good.

It is understandable that existing groups want to tap into a new source of volunteers, and that individual projects have also spotted a chance. But consider the names of some of the projects funded by Legacy Trust UK – CREATE, Accentuate, imove. They may be laudable in intent, but these names say nothing about what they are doing. The Olympics has a clear big idea. What is needed if the spirit of 2012 is to be rekindled is another big idea that is at once inspiring and realistic.

Such ideas are not easy to come by, which may be why there has been so much flailing around on the subject of post-2012 volunteering. One tentative thought might be to revamp the 50 year-old Community Service Volunteers as the Olympic Volunteer Service, and encourage it to market itself to the “army” of 2012. Another might be for the 2012 volunteers to create and staff a new summer school, for all ages, to combine sports and the arts.

Those tending the flame of Olympic volunteering are right: it would be a shame if this most unexpected by-product of the Games went to waste. But so much time has been lost, chasing so many misconceptions, that it is hard to be optimistic that a new golden age of altruism is at hand.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Full Stack Developer (.NET 4.0, ASP.NET, MVC, Ajax, WCF,SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Full Stack ...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?