Edition number 10; dateline 2 July 2008

Is that it?

We are, of course, delighted to welcome the minister for the 2012 Olympic Games to the pages of The Leisure Review. You will be able to make your own judgement as to whether we asked the right questions and the extent to which Ms Jowell gave the right answers elsewhere. I’m sure you’ll let us know whether you are filled with hope and excitement about the big show that will roll around very quickly once the flame goes out in Beijing.

Our interview followed announcement of the latest plans for the 2012 legacy, which seemed to be effectively summarised as ‘free swimming’. Although Ms Jowell makes the point that this is only the first step of delivering the legacy for which we all hope, the essence of the question – “Is that it?” – still lingers long after the announcement and the minister’s response.

Culture secretary Burnham certainly seemed full of vigour when he announced the legacy master plan. “Offering free swimming is just the kind of imaginative action required to make us a more active nation by 2012,” he said, exuding vim from every pore. “We have chosen swimming because its appeal is universal. It is the perfect antidote to the couch potato culture… That’s why since 1997 almost £250 million of public money has been invested in swimming – more than any other sport. Over the last three years, more swimming pools have opened than closed. So the pools are there, we now need to make sure they are world-class facilities and that people use them.”

My response was, I’m afraid, to be profoundly underwhelmed. Statistics quickly followed from non-government sources suggesting that swimming was declining among young people despite effort and investment. Would the general population, many of whom are yet to be fully convinced that the whole Olympic bill is worth paying, be inspired by the boast that following £250m investment we’ve not lost any swimming pools? While anyone involved with the business of leisure will understand that the implications of the famed ‘facilities time bomb’ mean that this is not quite the idle boast it might at first seem, it is not likely to inspire the public to leap from their sofas and throw themselves into Olympic-inspired activity for the first time since they were bullied by their PE teacher. I was also reminded of a bizarre discussion I once had with a finance director who explained that the reams of figures that her department gave me took a very long time to produce so I must make use of them. That the vast pile of documentation went straight in the bin was of no interest to her; they had been produced therefore people must be made to use them.

So is that it? Ms Jowell assures us that there is more to come but if so how did free swimming become the headline? It may be that this was genuinely thought to be a big, exciting story. It may be that there is a bigger legacy story to come and this has become the news. Either way, we may be in deeper trouble than we thought.

I hope this is not the case. I hope that there is much more to come than a legacy idea last seen on the back of a Cornflakes box. I recall attending a conference in the heady days of the final bidding for the 2012 Games at which Jude Kelly, artistic director at the Southbank, outlined the plans within the London bid book for a remarkable Cultural Olympiad. From where I was sitting it sounded like an ambitious, imaginative and inspirational set of ideas, not least of which was the FriendShip, which would spend the four years between Beijing and London under sail around the world bringing young people from all nations and all cultures together, spreading experience and learning, ideas and understanding in a positive employment of Great Britain’s maritime heritage. As the boldest, most exciting idea it was of course among the first to hit the floor when the bid was won. The nation’s first full-scale competition venue for road cycling swiftly followed and then it seems to have been full speed ahead with the scissors until we’re left with ‘free swimming’.

The minister for the Olympics tells readers of The Leisure Review that London 2012 has learned a great deal from previous hosts, particularly Sydney. The lesson they will have learned is that Sydney gave too little thought too late to any form of legacy, leaving them with impressive facilities that were chronically under-used. The Sydney Olympic Park Authority has made great strides to make good errors that should have been anticipated but they were errors nonetheless. My enthusiasm for London 2012 has been based on the fact that everything about the London Olympics, from bid book to breaking ground, has been about legacy. Free swimming as the cornerstone of the legacy concept has got me worried.

Sport England is currently undertaking a study into legacy benefits of the 2008 FINA world short course swimming championships in Manchester “which could then be applied to the London 2012 Games”. What happens if the study finds that there wasn’t much impact? What would that mean for the 2012 legacy? What if the biggest impact came from having sport on BBC2 at 7pm every night for a week? It’s not that swimming is a bad thing or encouraging people to swim is not a good idea; it is the mundanity of the concept that is so dispiriting. With a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to inspire a nation with sport it seems that all we could come up with was something that we have been doing for years.

Jonathan Ives



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