Mary Dejevsky: We volunteered for the Games, but not for the Big Society

Volunteering at the London Olympics was a glorious one-off, but a one-off nonetheless

Share

When Jacques Rogge and Lord Coe closed the London Olympics, the loudest cheer was reserved not for the athletes – though the roar was deafening – nor for the organisers, who received an almost equally generous hand, but for the volunteers – all 70,000 of them. Or should I say, immodestly, us? The warm public embrace in which we volunteers have luxuriated – and which will surely last through the Paralympics – became a phenomenon of the Games. And the big question now – as big as David Cameron's Big Society – is whether the volunteering, like the sport, can "inspire a generation".

Why was there so much public enthusiasm? Pleasant surprise might be one explanation. For the Olympics, you have to have athletes, you have to have venues, and you have to have organisers. But the volunteers seemed to appear out of nowhere as a sort of bonus. The capital was suddenly speckled with clusters of pink- and-purple people, who were welcoming and polite – and the delight was mutual. London was transformed from an impersonal and at times threatening mega-city into somewhere more manageable and humane. You can say what you like about our uniforms, but you can't say you could not see us, and our kit conferred a certain sense of responsibility.

Just being there, I think, helped to create an atmosphere of safety and goodwill. But we were hardly alone. There were the police, visible but not at all threatening, in their Royal-Jubilee, Dixon-of-Dock-Green mode. There were the troops, in their fatigues and berets, giving a whole new look to Cool Britannia. The salutary effect of an official, but benign and common-sensical, presence is worth examining. With the closure of police stations, town halls and ticket offices, it is something our cities have progressively lost. Politicians, nationally and locally, should consider how it might somehow be restored.

Volunteers came from all ages and backgrounds. There might never have been such a cross-section of people cooperating since National Service was abolished. We really were a mirror of Britain. Some of my favourites were the mostly young people staffing the pedestrian crossings, trying to dissuade the huge crowds from trying to compete with a London bus. With their loud-hailers, cries of "Lad-eez and Gentlemen, careful now", "Wait for the green man", they were a splendid advert for young Britain, proof that courtesy, wit and a sense of responsibility has been hidden somewhere beyond the rioters and the Neets. They perfectly illustrated the notion that if you make people feel useful, they will rise to the occasion.

But will that spirit last? Will the volunteer army of the Olympics stick around to help build Mr Cameron's Big Society, and even if its foot soldiers don't, might they not have set an example that others will follow? And here, I regret to say – despite the reported surge in people volunteering to help with sports clubs in the immediate wake of the Olympics or offering a "Jubilee hour" of their time – I am less optimistic.

London 2012 was a glorious one-off, but a one-off nonetheless. Some have cited "glamour" as a motivation for the volunteers, but to me it looked more like a conjunction of individual Britons wanting to counter some of the negative impressions some visitors take away from this country, coupled with the conviction that nothing like this would happen again in our lifetime. There was a collective determination to get out there and do something, and the organisational framework set up for the Olympics made it possible. You didn't have to belong to a sports club, and you didn't have to "know someone". But the scale of the operation was vast, and it is hard to see how anything quite like it can be sustained.

The uniqueness of the undertaking meant that we really were – as novices – all in it together. Which has, alas, already touched off resentment on the part of existing good causes that the Olympics volunteers are getting all the glory (for what, in my case at least, was a mere 25 hours spread over five days), while many of their unpaid recruits have been beavering away for years with maximum dedication and minimal recognition. So let me apologise: to an extent, it was our visibility, and the surprise element, that "made" us. But I would hazard, too, that others could take lessons from the Olympics about flexibility and openness. Worthiness and cliquishness are forbidding.

These are not the only reasons why the Olympic volunteers may not report for a new tour of duty with the alacrity that is hoped – though our involvement has helped create a huge database of the willing! Serious volunteering requires regular and long-term commitments of time – time that is often in short supply. Many Olympic volunteers are students or retired people, some of whom already volunteer, or teachers (no comment about holidays). But many were using their annual leave. Volunteering for even an evening a week is more than many – with work, family and other obligations – can guarantee, even if we could afford it.

Another distinctive aspect of the Olympics was the feeling that we were doing something that would not have been done without us. And while the same might be said of helping in hospitals or care homes, or with literacy programmes or advice centres, there will be those – and I am among them – who feel that the UK is not America, and that there are some things the State should do and be prepared to pay for. The borderline will fall in different places for different people, but the suspicion about the Big Society is that it is driven by government and will end up filling holes in the State.

I don't at all exclude an Olympic effect on volunteering, especially in sport. And I would be delighted if someone – who? – set up a spin-off volunteer effort to offer information and directions in and around the capital during the tourist season. And I am delighted if the Olympic volunteers have helped reaffirm Cameron's faith in the generous spirit of Britons – as they have mine. But he would do well to keep quiet about it. Signing up to the Prime Minister's pet project is not what most of us had in mind when we applied to help with the Olympics all those months ago. And if he tries to co-opt us, it could turn us off the whole idea.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Senior BA - Motor and Home Insurance

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT ROLE**...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£55 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are looking to recruit two ...

Primary supply teachers required in Ipswich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers requ...

Science Technician

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Preston: A school in Preston require a S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron and Ed Miliband attend the Queen's Speech on 4 June 2014  

Scottish referendum: It's hard for us Labour supporters to admit, but Cameron did good here

Rob Marchant
NO ballots are stacked on a table during the Scottish independence referendum count at the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh  

Scottish referendum: Some divorces are meant to happen – this one wasn’t

Dotti Irving
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week