/ Olympics

Brian O'Connell's London 2012 Blog

Updated: Tuesday, 07 Aug 2012 20:05

Will the London Games leave any real lasting impact on British society?
Will the London Games leave any real lasting impact on British society?

After a successful weekend for Britain’s athletes, Boris Johnson’s popularity is increasing almost in line with the medal tally.

The London mayor - whose bumbling unathletic Bertie Wooster image was enhanced last week by being stuck for five minutes suspended in mid-air on a zip wire - is now the bookies’ favourite to be the next Tory leader.

One political scenario is that a hapless David Cameron steps down after the 2015 general election having failed for the second time to deliver an overall Tory majority and is replaced as leader by Boris.

However the realpolitik is that it’s unlikely Boris will give up his berth at City Hall before his mayoral term ends in 2016.

Nevertheless, such is the sporting mood gripping the nation that the British are even getting interested in handball, a sport which, to put it mildly, is not exactly a national obsession here.

On Sunday the Duchess of Cambridge paid a visit to the Copper Box venue at the Olympic Park to cheer on the GB women’s handball team against Croatia before going on to join William in the stadium for the men’s 100 metres final.

Even though I’m a bit vague on the finer points of handball, there’s no doubt the Copper Box is a fine venue designed for maximum flexibility for a variety of events in the future.

Earlier on Sunday morning I had gone there to see the South Korean women’s team beat Sweden. Incidentally, three of the Swedish team members later appeared on Facebook helping Usain Bolt celebrate his 9.63 second victory.

I mention the Copper Box because, with the British now well ahead of their medal expectations, the talk is of sporting legacy.

"Since Britain won the right to host the Games way back in 2005 most of the hot air spouted by ministers and Games officials about "legacy" has been about sustainability and what will happen to the physical infrastructure at Stratford. Remember the long-running Spurs/West Ham saga in connection with the Stadium?"

Since Britain won the right to host the Games way back in 2005 most of the hot air spouted by ministers and Games officials about "legacy" has been about sustainability and what will happen to the physical infrastructure at Stratford. Remember the long-running Spurs/West Ham saga in connection with the Stadium?

Now that discussion has turned to the effect the 2012 Games will have on future British sporting achievement.

Since the weekend, athletics clubs have been reporting massive interest from mid-summer holiday schoolchildren wanting to be the next Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah. And while Andy Murray’s gold medal victory over Roger Federer may finally put an end to the annual Wimbledon argument about why Britain can’t seem to produce world-class tennis players (the answer is not enough indoor tennis training venues), the root causes will remain. It is, as it is in Ireland, about sporting facilities, whether in the school or community.

The part of east London which houses the Olympic Park covers some of the most deprived boroughs in the country and the Olympic legacy will provide much needed employment and facilities there.

But most children in Britain do not live near Stratford and much of the local authority sporting provision elsewhere in Britain is sub- standard at best. For example my local pool at Tooting Leisure Centre in south-west London where I have been swimming every morning for many years is little better than a public toilet.

While my Michael Phelps dreams are now long past - in my day it was all about Mark Spitz anyway - Tooting is not the sort of place where Britain is going to breed the next generation of medal winners.

Yes I know Britain has the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace and its Olympic pool, but the cycle track at Herne Hill in South London, which was the venue for track cycling at the London 1948 Olympic Games and until the construction of the velodrome at Stratford was one of the few cycling venues in the country, needs upgrading.

So why is it that, even allowing for the current recession, a country which is a member of the G8 and has hosted three Olympic Games - the most recent at a cost of almost €14billion - has until now been either unable, unprepared or unwilling to invest in existing sports facilities for its children’s future?

In 2003, when Jonny Wilkinson’s late drop goal secured the Rugby World Cup for England, local rugby clubs in England were swamped every Sunday morning with ten-year-old boys wanting to emulate their hero’s achievements.

"I remember going to Jonny’s former club at Farnham to do a piece for RTÉ News about how they were coping with the increased demand. The English RFU struggled, but they trained more coaches and set up rugby academies and summer camps. The legacy of that strategy can still be seen in youth rugby across the country today even if it has not yet been reflected on England’s Six Nations scorelines"

I remember going to Jonny’s former club at Farnham to do a piece for RTÉ News about how they were coping with the increased demand. The English RFU struggled, but they trained more coaches and set up rugby academies and summer camps. The legacy of that strategy can still be seen in youth rugby across the country today even if it has not yet been reflected on England’s Six Nations scorelines.

Whether the same thing will happen with sports like rowing or track and field or cycling will depend on how Britain’s Conservative/Liberal Democrat government manages the expectations of a jubilant electorate who have had little to cheer about since David Cameron moved into Downing Street.

Before the Games opened all indications were of nothing, but further cuts to national and local authority funding which will increase the burden on funding from lottery money. British Olympic Association chairman, Lord Moynihan, has been urging a change in approach by schools. This is because state school provision of sporting facilities has been unfavourably compared with that provided by the fee-paying private schools which are attended by only seven percent of Britain’s children.

Every Irish or British parent of a child who has made it into an Olympic squad will know what it is like on the wet weekday evenings or at six in the morning before school when training must come first. And those parents will also know what it is like when the Games are over for another four years and the cheers have died down and the Olympic tourists have gone back to their own countries.

In Britain the popular imagination will soon move on to something else. That is why the 2012 sporting legacy, which will also benefit many young Irish athletes, will require not just money, but real political commitment from a British coalition government under the kind of internal tensions which can only increase as the 2015 general election finishing line draws closer. And that’s something that even Boris may not be able to manage.

Medal Table

Country Total
USA 45 27 30 102
China 38 28 23 89
Great Britain 29 17 19 65
Russia 25 25 32 82
South Korea 13 8 7 28
Ireland 1 1 3 5
Full Table

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