Tony Blair on the legacy of London 2012Sunday, Aug 12, 2012 in Office of Tony Blair, Sports Foundation
12th August 2012 – The following article by Tony Blair was first published in the Sunday Times
National sentiment is rarely universal; but the acclaim given to the London 2012 Olympics is as close as we will ever get to it. This has been a spectacular event, brilliantly conceived, managed and executed: the world’s greatest sporting show done in a manner worthy of its history and significance.
It’s changed the atmosphere of the nation. It has been exciting, uplifting, inspiring, and it’s affected everything: from how we feel about ourselves to how we treat each other. So how do we try to hold-on to some of the spirit the Games has engendered?
First, we shouldn’t forget that when we launched the bid, there was huge scepticism and a fair amount of opposition to it. We’d had problems with Wembley stadium and the Millennium Dome and the Government had become wary of risk. I remember being on the receiving end of a lot of ‘advice’: we couldn’t win; to fail would be a national humiliation; it was already a stitch up for Paris and to be beaten by France would increase the humiliation and of course the old chestnut that the whole thing would be a supreme waste of money.
But Tessa Jowell, then Secretary of State for Culture and the then Mayor Ken Livingstone were in favour. They argued strongly that the Games would have a twofold legacy: the regeneration of the East End of London and helping build sport into the lives of a generation of children. Then Tessa brought in to see me a group of the great and good of British sport. These included Seb Coe, Steve Redgrave, Steve Cram, Ben Ainslie, Kelly Holmes and Denise Lewis. They tipped the scales for me. They were enthusiastic, determined but, above all, insistent that it was right to give it a go. They didn’t dismiss the prospect of failure. They just said we had to be bold enough to go for it. And here’s a lesson: be ambitious. If you aren’t willing to try and fail, then you will never try and succeed. We should have the self-belief and confidence as a nation that we are a remarkable people who can achieve the highest level when we put our minds to it. Yes, these are tough times we face huge challenges - not least economic ones. Overcoming them will require a deep change in the way we think and work. But we can do it. There are opportunities in change as well as threats. But in a world changing so fast around us, there is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost in a timid attitude of fear. We have to embrace the change and get ahead.
Second, we won the bid and then delivered on it because we exercised our creativity. The way the bid was mounted was unconventional. We presented Britain as a mixture of tradition and modernity. This was the pitch designed by Seb, Tessa and the others and it worked. So where Paris showed – with justification – its beauty and history, London emphasised its past but also its new face: multinational, multi-faith, multi-ethnic and showcased this not as a worry, but as an enrichment of our city’s traditions. We linked that to the Olympic spirit, bringing disparate cultures and nations together. We wanted to show what the UK could give to the Olympics not just what we would gain from it. The truth is that nowadays, most big nations can do the infrastructure. That is rarely in dispute, tough though it is to deliver. So we tried creatively to add something different. The opening ceremony was in similar vein: an extraordinary explosion of history, humour, contemporary art and quirkiness that was both risky and perfectly judged. But playing safe it wasn’t!
Third, for once, each part of the complex network of Government, private and voluntary sector did what it did best, complementing rather than colliding with each other. Government gave its full backing but we had learnt from the Dome and basically kept out of the delivery side. We didn’t let the Treasury micro manage things - we just hired the best people, allowed them to get on with it and were open about progress. The voluntary sector and local communities played their part in an array of events including the torch relay – 10m people coming out to see and participate – and the volunteers were the low key heroes of the Games, winning huge affection from the spectators for their kindness and sense of fun.
Fourth, Britain recovered its innate optimism. I know not all of it can and will last. But there’s surely a lesson here also. How refreshing it’s been to see people not cynical but energetic and upbeat. Looking round the world today at the countries that are succeeding and those falling behind, I notice the quality that unites those forging ahead, is a sense of their possibilities, not their problems, a willingness to believe in what they can do, rather than a negative focus on what they haven’t done. And look at some of the young volunteers taking positions of leadership in the Olympic Village – what a great example and contrast to last year’s depiction of part of our youth as anarchic rioters.
Fifth, a country’s character matters and one defining characteristic of strong nations is that at crucial moments, they pull together. There is fierce political debate over many big and difficult issues and that is a fundamental part of a healthy democracy. But part of a healthy society is also the ability of people who disagree about many things to agree on some that can and should transcend division. This is the hallmark of a country that understands the true meaning of patriotism. On the Olympics, from the beginning, we looked to work across Party lines. A few people in my Party were worried about putting Seb, a former Conservative MP, in charge of the Games. Likewise, the Tories had to resist the temptation to play politics with what is always a fraught process to bid, win and deliver. But by and large the consensus held and helped enormously. It was John Major’s Government who took the decision to use Lottery proceeds to invest in sport. It was the Labour Government that took the decision to invest in the Games. There is a lesson here for the future and the legacy the Olympics will leave.
But it’s not over. In these last weeks we have imbibed deeply of the Olympic spirit; and we are now on the brink of what should be the most successful Paralympic Games ever. In throwing timidity to the wind and aiming for something which many told us was impossible we have re-discovered the spirit that is our own. Holding on to that really should also be part of the legacy.