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


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.

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