London 2012 must be the starting gun in a race for a stronger Britain

Tessa Jowell
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WITH the closing ceremony bringing the stupendously successful Olympic Games to an end, we should recognise what the Games has taught us about our national character. The Games have taught us something about ourselves that we never dared believe. The combined power of the British people, who embraced the Games, and our Olympians who have made us so proud through their achievements, has proven to us that our nation can have a new confidence.

Before the Games, the conventional wisdom was that a London Olympics would give rise to a string of failures. But let’s look at what actually happened.

The construction of the Olympic Park, the largest and most ambitious project in Europe, was delivered on time and half a billion pounds under budget. It is a glorious park with world-class sporting venues that will give pride and pleasure for years to come. The largest logistical operation that our country has ever performed in peacetime has succeeded, largely without a hitch.

We didn’t look back from the opening ceremony, when Danny Boyle held a mirror to our collective soul. Before the Games, we hardly dared to hope that our medal success would match Beijing. But 29 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze medals later, and we have had our best performance in over 100 years. London 2012 has shown the world how talented and ambitious our nation really is.

Whether the 13m people who celebrated the torch relay, or the 70,000 Games Makers who really did make the Games, the millions of people ringing their bells on the day of the opening ceremony, or the 120,000 people who kept the secret of the opening ceremony – this has truly been the people’s Olympics.

The Games have been an expression of the unsung decency of individuals, finding their part and their place where they mattered in the creation of this national moment that was so much bigger than any of us.

And long overdue, women are striding to an equal place in sport. After Heather Stanning and Helen Glover became Team GB’s first ever female rowing gold medallists, two other female crews did the same.

The victory of the boxer Nicola Adams will remain one of the enduring images of the Games. Her gold medal was not just a reward for brilliant athleticism, but also another milestone in the long road to gender equality. In Beijing, she would not have been allowed to compete. This week, she and our other female boxers demonstrated that women can pull in the crowds just like the men.

Laura Trott and Victoria Pendleton’s performances also marked the end of inequality in track cycling, both of whom would have had fewer opportunities to win gold when there were previously just three races for women.

The best way that we can honour this extraordinary time is to seize the opportunity created by our athletes – and fulfil our Olympic promise to inspire a generation through sport.

Team GB’s success has inspired the nation, and the amazing experience of the Games in London has given us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get our children excited about playing more sport, more often.

Schools need to be able to build on the excitement, so that they can make sport a habit for all children, which will help keep them fit and healthy for their lives. Schools that do a lot of sport tend to have better behaviour, less truancy and more children arriving on time.

This is a task that is bigger than any one politician or political party – but a national project that needs to draw in talent from every corner of our country. It needs to bring together everyone who makes sport happen: national sports bodies, dedicated teachers and the thousands of volunteers who are vital to providing competition.

That’s why Labour is offering its full-hearted co-operation with a 10-year cross-party plan for sport.

Regular sport is the best medicine that we have to tackle childhood obesity, motivate kids to do their best and build self-esteem. Our athletes have made our country proud. Let’s work together to build another sporting generation that can do the same.

Dame Tessa Jowell is Labour shadow minister for the Olympics, shadow minister for London and MP for Dulwich and West Norwood. She bid for the Olympics Games to come to London when culture secretary.