Friday, September 7, 2012

Creating a mini-Olympics to build social integration

When I was at school we used to take part in the “mini-Olympics”, where kids would participate in a range of sports and receive novelty shop medals if they won an event. It was cheap and cheerful, but if it wasn’t rained off – one of the most enjoyable days of the year. The London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics have got me wondering whether local authorities can recreate the success of the national events in bringing people together: a series of mini-Olympics, in effect?

There has been much discussion about the “unifying” effects of the big Olympics. London 2012 succeeded in bringing different communities together under the banner of Team GB. Polls taken shortly after the Games show that 80% of the public now feel more proud to be British as a result. The Games also succeeded in involving over 70,000 volunteers, 40% of whom had never previously volunteered.

Charged with creating more cohesive and integrated communities, the Olympics offers some insight into how to break down barriers between communities, promote social action and volunteering, and build a commitment to shared values.

Creating the Conditions for Integration – the Government’s policy statement on creating a more cohesive and integrated society – talks about the need to build “shared aspirations and values”; ensure that “people of all backgrounds have a chance to take part”; and the tackle intolerance.

Accepting that there is not yet a comprehensive evaluation of the impact the Olympics has had on community cohesion; there are still a number of aspects in the Olympics’ approach that have the potential to contribute to the long term aspirations set out in Creating the Conditions. In particular, the Olympics succeeded in building a stronger commitment to social improvement – with a mass of people drawn into volunteering with the belief that they were making a difference, and contributing to real and important projects – be this signposting people to venues or cleaning up dirty streets. The Games also succeeded – at least temporarily – in bridging the gap between the desire to re-build patriotic values and a commitment to Britain, and the need to respect diversity. While British flags and anthems were prominent throughout, cultural diversity and the acceptance of difference was allowed to flourish beneath them.

Councils and their partners serving highly diverse – and in many parts of the country – socially and ethnically divided constituents, need to find similar strategies for building a shared commitment to community improvement and to take advantage of the opportunities to break down barriers between communities. Opportunities to encourage volunteers into serving local communities – by emphasising the practical and real difference they can make – should be encouraged; as should community events and gatherings where people can feel both British and proud of their differences.

The Games were hugely well funded – and a one off – not to be repeated in our generation. Thus, a mini-Olympic philosophy needs to be sought – in which scarce resources are used cleverly to inspire and utilise local people’s time and efforts in a joint effort to improve communities.