What can we learn from London 2012?

Dan Pope, Club Website editor

So what do we do now?

The sun has set on London 2012 and, to be honest, I’ve been feeling a little bit lost these last couple of days.

Monday’s evening television seemed even more dull than it was before I welcomed the Greatest Show on Earth into my living room.

For 17 glorious days we were enthralled by taekwondo teenagers and female boxing history makers, by oarsmen (and women) and horsemen (and women), by Bradley’s burns and our cyclists’ speed to burn, by Jess’ golden weekend and her smile to match, by the Lightning Bolt tearing up the track and by Super Saturdays with Mo.

We cheered. We roared. We cried.

The mood of the nation lifted and with it did the performance of Team GB – to a whole host of golden moments that will live with us forever. It felt like something special happened here – beyond the realms of sport, like this really mattered.

At least that’s how I saw it.

To be honest, I was sold before the Games began and I know that many people weren’t but, judging from the reaction of people I know and those I’ve read or listened to since, even the doubters, the cynics and the non-sports fans were hooked. Olympic Fever broke out as an epidemic.

When a few thousand strangers and I jumped up shouting “Come on Mo!” at a television screen in Blackheath on Saturday, it felt like the whole country was shouting him on.

This was sport at its most powerful. It lifted people’s spirits and united us. We smiled. Even Londoners – not exactly renowned for their warmth – were hugging and high fiving people they had never met. There were similar scenes across the country.

The Olympics did this. Sport did this. And long may we remember it.

The Paralympics are just two weeks away but, for now, attention turns to the football season.

But as the national sport takes its usual place back at the centre of the sporting world, one wonders what lessons football might learn from the last three weeks.

The Olympics work so well as spectator sport – whether on TV or there in person – not just because of the world class talent on show, or the drama of the occasion, but also because you sense a connection between the competitors and the supporters.

This is partly due to the Games’ infrequency. The four-yearly cycle adds to the spectacle, as you know that those competing have dedicated their last four years to that very moment.

They push themselves to the limit, yet three medals are the only reward and, even if they climb their personal Everest to win one, they may not be seen again on such a grand scale for another four years.

Football is arguably the opposite, with most players at the top of the game rewarded with vast sums of money – often before they have achieved anything in the sport – and the game rarely out of the public eye.

And we all know what familiarity breeds.

The size or wealth of the game is not the players’ fault, of course, and the best professionals work exceptionally hard to get to the top. But it might explain why, when Team GB’s men’s team lost to South Korea on penalties, it felt like a fairly trivial matter.

The real story that night was at the Olympic Stadium, where Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah had just treated 80,000 in the stands and more than 17 million watching at home to a truly Super Saturday.

To hear those gold medal heroes interviewed after the greatest night in the history of UK athletics, you would not have guessed there was a star among them.

Humble, down to earth, thankful – these superstars showed what it means to be an Olympian.

Whatever the sport, respect for opponents and officials was always to the fore and, whilst bowing to your adversary taekwondo-style might be going a bit far, one can only hope that some of our footballers were taking note.

Britain’s Olympic spectators showed themselves in the best possible light, turning up in their droves and combining ear-splitting support for the home team with fair play and appreciation of all protagonists.

Of course, nobody expects football crowds to start singing chants for the opposition team, but many hope the spirit of the Games will have an effect, including England boss Roy Hodgson, who described the Games as a “wake-up call.”

“We don’t need that hatred and abuse which footballers have to suffer,” said Hodgson. “Certainly we didn’t see too much of that in the Olympic Games.”

Hodgson also accepted that the positive behaviour of Olympic athletes will put that of footballers under more scrutiny in the coming weeks.

“Our athletes did perform so well, not only in terms of their athletic performance but in terms of their behaviour,” he added.

“So a benchmark has been set and we must accept that in football and all the other major team sports, that we’ll be under a little more of the spotlight.”

So when the spotlight shines on players contesting referees’ decisions, or hurling abuse at each other or feigning injuries – I saw more people run 200m with a broken leg or play hockey with a fractured jaw than I did pretend to be hurt – it will be interesting to see if the Olympics has shortened the public’s patience with footballers.

Another highlight of the Olympics were the brilliant volunteers. The ‘Games Makers’ really lived up to their name, pointing the way and providing helpful advice and boundless energy throughout.

But this is one thing that football doesn’t need teaching about. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the game at grassroots level.

Take the volunteers away and the grassroots game dies. Lose this and there is no game at all.

So let’s celebrate our volunteers in the same way as London 2012. Let’s be thankful for the countless hours put in by parents, coaches and staff right across the country.

But let’s support our volunteers and encourage more people to get involved in sport.

This very weekend, there are events going on across the country giving people the chance to join in local sport at nearby clubs or community groups. It’s a great way to follow the Olympics and its a cause that should last the whole year round.

But if government are serious about leaving a lasting legacy from the Olympics, then the efforts of volunteers and local clubs to get people involved in sport must be supported at grassroots level.

We need more and better sport in schools. We need sport to be placed higher on the priority list at central and local government level. We need more funding to ensure that coaches are trained to the standards required. We need better facilities so that people can get out there and try to emulate their heroes.

If the London 2012 Olympics really are to leave their mark, everyone involved in sport, from the decision makers at the top down to the volunteers at grassroots level, must do their bit.

The aim was to inspire a generation. The athletes have done their part. Now it’s over to the rest of us.

Photo credits: Olympic rings (© Kevin Neagle); Volunteers everywhere (© illang)

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Dan Pope
Writer at Teamer
Freelance writer, editor and copywriter, with a passion for grassroots sport. A right back turned football writer, Dan is the former editor of Club Website and has been lucky enough to work in the field of grassroots and community sport for the last 10 years.

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