Inspiring a Generation

There’s no denying that the summer of 2012 was an incredible sporting triumph for Britain: Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France, Team GB winning 65 Olympic medals, Paralympics GB winning 120 medals and, most recently, Andy Murray ending our long wait for Grand Slam success with his victory in the US open. As a nation we have been glued to our screens shouting, cheering and hiding behind our hands as our top athletes demonstrated the determination and desire for glory that they so richly deserved. We have packed out sporting venues, we have lined the streets supporting torch bearers, cheering on athletes and celebrating success. We have been, in a word, inspired.

Yes, we have been inspired. One of the main aims of the Olympic legacy was to “inspire a generation” and there has been a great deal of discussion of this in the media since the Games ended. Certainly we inspired the whole nation to come together in support of our sporting stars (even online retailers saw their profits fall, such was our level of enthusiasm for watching sporting action!) and the recent parades of Olympians in cities around the country have shown our continued need for the feel-good factor of the Games. But have we been inspired to take up sport? Is it even just about sport or can that inspiration take other forms?

In his speech at the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games, Seb Coe praised those involved in the success of London 2012 and highlighted the legacy of the Games:

“This was a unique time when sport seemed to rule the world, and people everywhere were transfixed by the joy of sport. The athletes performed at an awe-inspiring level and almost always with grace and sportsmanship whether they won or lost. We had a plethora of world records, and Olympic and Paralympic records that we could marvel at.

‘Thanks to the athletes, young people know it is possible to triumph over adversity, to challenge and then change their circumstances and to achieve great things.”

And that, as I see it, is the key: showing young people that they can achieve great things if they are prepared to challenge the obstacles that might lie in their path, inspiring the next generation to work hard to fulfill their dreams.

I have observed with interest this legacy in the immediate aftermath of our summer of sport. In workplaces around the country talk has turned to marvelling at sporting endeavours and to recounting stories of athletes’ triumph over adversity. Reports suggest that cycling is becoming increasingly popular (the Wiggo effect) and the popularity of running shows no sign of abating. Even this morning as I watched coverage of the Great North Run it was heartwarming to see so many of the people interviewed citing the Olympics and Paralympics as an inspiration for them to get involved. Most encouraging of all is the fact that Paralympic athletes have become household names and more recognisable than ever before. So far, so good.

But what of the next generation? How are we faring with regard to inspiring them?

As far as my classroom experiences go, then I have to say that there has been a shift in the attitudes of some young people in recent weeks. I’ve certainly been fielding more questions than usual from new classes about my running exploits and a number came back bursting to talk about the Olympics and share their experiences. This extended into the Paralympics when some of my pupils were keen to see equality of status for Paralympic athletes and demonstrated a strong sense of fairness and rights. I saw this most from my S4 pupils, several of whom take a keen interest in sport already. They often ask about my running and I was pleased to hear one mention that she had begun going to the local Parkrun on a Saturday. Better still was the legacy of the games creeping into some of their recent work. I set a writing piece in which pupils reflect on important items in their lives, at the end of which they have the opportunity to be creative and select four items they would love to have in the future. Ordinarily I get fairly predicable lists of lottery winnings, fast cars and big houses, but this year sights were set higher with Olympic medals, marathon finishers’ medals and academic success featuring highly. Achievable goals for those prepared to work.

And this continued as I asked the same class to prepare a talk in which they have to discuss the three people (real or fictional) from any time period that they would invite to a dinner party. Again, this is ordinarily a parade of the pop stars of the moment (hello Justin Bieber), aesthetically pleasing movie actors of the time (that would be you Robert Pattinson et al) and the sort of vacuous “celebrity” known for nothing more than featuring regularly in gossip magazines and turning up to the opening of an envelope. Not this year. This year my pupils wanted to ask a very different sort of star: those they had seen on tv throughout the summer. Usain Bolt was popular, along with Mo Farah, Jess Ennis and David Weir. Some had clearly been paying attention to more than just the sport itself and were interested in others involved in this summers’ events such as David Cameron, Seb Coe, Boris Johnson and Kate Middleton. They had thought long and hard about not just why they would ask these people, but what they wanted to ask them about. Their ideas were perceptive and showed they had been taking a real interest in current affairs, something often said to be lacking in young people. Their ideas showed that they had been inspired.

Of course inspiring an entire generation to take up sport or strive towards their dreams is a monumental task. Of course we can’t expect London 2012 and the country’s summer of success to change the nation overnight, and of course there will still be those young people who delight in shouting, “Oi, the Olympics are past, hen!” as I set out to run more miles than they can conceive of. But for every one of those, let’s hope there is another who has been in some way inspired to make a change in their life after the amazing feats they witnessed this summer. Surely that would be a win for the Olympic legacy?

If the generation we want to inspire is showing an interest, we as a nation have to capitalise on that. We have to help make it happen.

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