The London bid to host the Olympics in 2012 is not just an opportunity for a great sporting spectacle, but also a chance for our capital city to celebrate its cultural heritage. Jude Kelly explains.
The modern Olympic movement is arguably one of the greatest acts of human imagination and will the world has ever known. At the heart of its purpose is the desire for world peace, which is demonstrated by:
- Symbolically bringing the whole world into one central arena
- Using competition and drive to further respect between individuals and nations
- Demonstrating the ?god-like? achievements that humanity is capable of in sporting and artistic endeavour
- Strengthening our desire to build a world that offers all its citizens and, importantly young people, the chance to excel ? for themselves and on behalf of the world.
London hosted the Olympics in 1948 as a post-war statement of world peace. Since then Britain has bid three times ? once for Birmingham and twice for Manchester. But London has compelling reasons for wanting to host the games again both in terms of what it can offer and what it would gain. The capital has been a centre for migrant individuals and communities for hundreds of years. It has constantly benefited from the energies and challenges of newcomers fusing with the eclectic heritage of previous generations. As a result, London contains a vivid cultural mix of beliefs, fashions, foods, languages, musical and dance traditions that make it uniquely suited to host this festival of world unity. Over 300 languages are spoken here and every competing team would find welcome from its own community living within the capital. Britain can tell an amazing tale of racial diversity, and at this point of global tension it is vital to celebrate that story.
Festival of excellence
The modern Olympic and Paralympic movement has three concepts uniting its vision as a movement for world peace, citizenship and harmony. They include excellence in sport, excellence in culture and excellence in education. These three should interweave to produce the over-arching ideal ? a festival of universal youth as described by founder Pierre de Coubertin. This acknowledges a responsibility to create a lasting legacy for future generations. Our Olympic village would be set within London?s East End, which has the youngest and most diverse population in Britain. The excitement, inspiration and opportunities the Games offer to include young people from all backgrounds is a challenge we should grasp with total commitment.
London is acknowledged as the creative capital of the world: music, visual arts, dance, theatre, literature, cultural industries and museums thrive and fuse in a powerful complex tapestry of traditional and cutting-edge work. This creativity is reflected around the country as a whole and the Olympics offer an international platform to demonstrate and build on Britain?s imagination. Changing our image of ourselves from a reserved, post-colonial bureaucracy to an expressive, enthusiastic post-millennium meritocracy needs a shift of national psyche. Barcelona and Sydney proved that the Olympic Games provide that powerful catalyst.
The benefits to the capital city would be enormous. On a pragmatic level, the impetus to improve the transport and communications infrastructure is urgently needed, and extensive investment in all aspects of the Lower Lea Valley is overdue. As a set of communities the Lower Lea Valley has been undernourished, as an environment it has been neglected, and as a powerful contributor to London?s historical and cultural journey, it has been ignored. The Olympic bid could change that forever. But by 2012, London as a whole will be transformed by a host of regeneration projects into which the Olympics would serve as an added galvanising force: the South Bank project, Elephant and Castle, Arsenal, Paddington Basin, King?s Cross, Exhibition Road, Whitechapel, Holloway Road and the Thames Gateway. The dreaming and planning surrounding these projects provides a magnificent redrawing of London?s landscape into which its East End becomes an equal, powerful and necessary player. The creative sector is a driving force in these changing vistas.
London hosting the Olympics has to matter to Britain as a whole, and in cultural and educational terms that means each region using the Olympic bid as a focus for raising aspirations and producing powerful new ideas. We could really revel in a commitment to international partnerships at all levels; the Liverpool European Year of Culture in 2008 is a natural springboard for the four-year Cultural Olympiad that traditionally precedes the Games themselves.
The opening and closing ceremonies of the Games have been the traditional focus for much of the artistic activity in the Olympics. However, we should seize the opportunity to create a truly magnificent world culture festival that interweaves with the sporting events rather than being a decorative ?add-on?. The Paralympics have been an inspiring challenge to conventional prejudices surrounding disability, and the arts have their own acclaimed history of work in this field which must be given prominence and support.
Educationally, we have a chance to use the arts and sport to further the achievements of young people. The tools of creative and physical participation to raise self-esteem, team build and articulate ideas are increasingly understood by schools and communities but the Olympics give a spur for that activity to become more wide-spread.
Our cultural life
Finally, the Olympics promote the idea of superb personal achievement ? going beyond normal limits. It is a metaphor that sport can display with beauty, grace and passion ? but so can the arts. The Olympic bid offers an opportunity to unite all aspects of our cultural life around de Coubertin?s desire for the mind, body and spirit to be given equal regard.