The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: 10 Years On

Our Chief Executive, Debbie Lye, writes:

Ten years ago, on a muggy July morning, London was devastated by a terrorist attack which took 52 lives and blew apart many more.  Those killed were daughters, husbands, brothers, parents, sons, sisters and friends.  For those left behind the grief never goes away.  And for those scarred, traumatised and terrified by the four explosions that shattered the city, that day life changed for ever.

The previous day, London won the right to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and a wave of elation had swept the country.

The juxtaposition of those two very different events is particularly vivid for me. I was involved both in the aftermath of 7/7 and the preparations for London 2012.  The day news came from Singapore that London would host the 2012 Games is vividly imprinted in my mind. I was working at UK Sport where, under the inspirational leadership of Baroness Sue Campbell, the focus was Mission 2012 – the drive to win more medals than ever before and to come at least 4th in the medals table. It succeeded spectacularly, with Team GB surging into 3rd place with a total haul of 65 golds.  As UK Sport International Head, I was particularly excited by the ‘Singapore Promise’ that a London Games would use the power of the Olympics and Paralympics to inspire children and young people worldwide to choose sport, and to change their lives as a result. 

On 7 July, UK Sport met to discuss what a London Games would mean for us, as the funders of the UK high performance system. I was proud to be part of that vision - to change lives worldwide through sport.

By Monday morning my secondment to UK Sport was over, and I was heading a team under DCMS Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, the Minister responsible for supporting those bereaved and injured by the 7/7 attacks.  For six months, the Olympic promises were far from my thoughts as I met, supported, and became emotionally invested in families and individuals enmeshed in grief and loss.

In early 2006, I returned to UK Sport and spent the next seven years planning for, and creating a global legacy of London’s Games. International Inspiration engaged children and young people in (among others) Pakistan, Bangladesh and northern Nigeria, providing young people with positive models of leadership and meaningful activities. The work with our partners, UNICEF, the British Council and the Youth Sport Trust ultimately gave 25 million people the chance to ‘choose sport’.  The downside was the reaction from people here at home.  “That’s all great, but what about our kids?”  Not my job, I had to say. 

Now, as Chief Executive of Spirit of 2012, helping shape a fitting UK legacy definitely is my job. Spirit exists to carry forward the torch of inspiration that London 2012 ignited, in two ways.  Firstly, we support projects originated in 2012, like Unlimited, which highlights the talent of disabled artists; National Paralympic DayGet Set, the Olympic and Paralympic values-based education programme; and Team London Young Ambassadors, which encourages children as young as nine to take action to make the world a better place.  Secondly, we see other events as catalysts for change and are currently helping to build lasting legacies from the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, the England 2015 Rugby World Cup and Hull 2017 City of Culture, as well as planning a programme to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in 2018.

As the debate around declining participation in sport simmers, we are investing £4.5m in Get Out & Get Active, a project designed to increase activity levels among the least active, who are often also the most economically disadvantaged.  This is 10% of our £47m endowment, though it is dwarfed by the £1.5bn annual spend of Local Authorities in England on sport and physical activity, and the hundreds of millions spent by the four national sports councils. 

So we are a tiny fish in a very big ocean when it comes to ‘turning the tide’ of inactivity that threatens people’s health and wellbeing. What we can do is help pinpoint what works best to get people moving, and staying active, and share that learning with other funders.   We aim too, to profile the effectiveness, and increase the reach of low cost, open access activities, to highlight that costly interventions in formal sports settings are not the only way to get more people out and about.

The Olympic and Paralympic summer of 2012 was an iconic national moment.  The backlash of disappointment, three years on, that the promise of increased participation was not sustained is understandable. People rightly expect that as an outcome, and I am one of them. 

Let’s not forget, though, that other remarkable things took root in 2012 and continue to flourish; and that, as Derry/Londonderry City of Culture 2013, Yorkshire’s own Grand Depart and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games have shown, there are many ways in which events can inspire individual and community wellbeing.  Let’s, in other words, keep battling to ensure that the best, not the worst, is the legacy of July 2005.