Volunteers alone will not guarantee a 2012 Games legacy

 
David Hellier
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AS the London Olympic Games 2012 draw to a close, the debate about their legacy is beginning in earnest.

It is a discussion taking place against a background of economic austerity, but the tremendous euphoria of the past few days means there is an air of optimism about the place.

The mood recalls for me the atmosphere that pervaded around the time of the General Election in 1997 when Tony Blair was elected.

To anyone working in London then there seemed to be a sudden spring in the step, a loosening (or complete abandonment) of ties for men in hitherto formal situations and an initial desire to adopt a bipartisan approach to certain issues that had up until then split the parties down the middle.

That was before the bitter wrangling between Blair and Gordon Brown and before the Iraq war, which together derailed the New Labour project.

The mood now is as positive as it was in 1997, even though the effects of staging the Games might well be quite short-lived in comparison. But there is a desire, even a political imperative, to build on the success of the Olympics.

Hence Boris Johnson, whose good fortune it is to have inherited a Games won for him by his predecessor Ken Livingstone and other Labourites, yesterday called on London (see below) to get on with developing a new Thames estuary airport in its bid to reassert itself as Europe’s capital beyond doubt.

Both he and the Prime Minister have used the success of the Games’ volunteers programme to call on others to give their time to support both athletes of the future and those who need encouragement in sport.

Indeed, one commentator even suggested yesterday that David Cameron might use the general goodwill factor among the general British public to relaunch his Big Society campaign.

For the past few months I have inadvertently been participating in the Big Society – or at least I think I have because I have struggled to understand quite what it means. I have been taking a group of school children at my son’s primary for park runs during my weekends.

I have been doing this with another parent after it became clear to a few of us that there was little provision for sport because of a mixture of a packed curriculum that does not allow for much sport, a shortage of staff qualified in sport and a lack of facilities.

While the running we have done has been fun (at least for us), I have no doubt that the children concerned would be better served under the tutelage of properly qualified sports instructors rather than well-meaning, but essentially clueless, volunteers.

While there is a role in society for volunteers, it seems to me suboptimal to rely on them to plug all the gaps. Resources are scarce, it is true, but often it is a question of prioritisation and so maybe sports provision, post the Olympics, deserves a greater attention because sport has been proved over a short period to have a wonderfully life-enhancing effect.

It seems to me that Tessa Jowell, the shadow Olympics minister, struck the right tone yesterday when she called for a bipartisan approach to protecting the legacy which, by the way, includes coming to an early and satisfactory decision over what to do with the magnificent Olympic Park stadium following the Paralympic Games.

Sebastian Coe and his colleagues put together the Games through a mixture of public, private sector funds and volunteers.

The solution to taking the country forward should be more of the same. Volunteers, though a part of the solution, are not the only answer.