A year ago this week, as Londoners, we went to bed amid chaos, conflict and fear in Croydon, Tottenham, Ealing, Hackney, Clapham as well as many other places throughout and beyond London. We woke up to the desolation and disbelief was something that shattered that self-assurance and confidence. Broken glass yes, but also a break in that delicate social contract that exists to retain public order. We could see how narrow that ‘thin blue line’ can be. And it’s scary.
Riots and looting had spread bringing a wave of fear, confusion and anger with them that had flooded the city and beyond.
There were local initiatives to ‘rebuild’ communities, and much (too much in my view) quick-fire speculation about causes and reasons which ended with much blame being placed and misplaced by those politicians and media junkies looking for instant answers. Answers were needed but sometimes it isn’t the first thing you think of that will provide the most learning.
It was a ‘youth’ problem we heard or ‘problem families’. I never really believed that. Firstly, the riots were not exclusively carried out by young people or by ‘poor people’ and blame needs to move beyond broad pasting of people based on background and income. If there is a problem (and I never really fall entirely for the ‘Broken Britain’ agenda) it is one that has to be shared through to those who lead our political and social culture that creates divisions and marginalised. But I’m not about explaining the riot phenomenon – academics who spend time researching rather than speculating are far better placed than me. I’m more about explaining feelings.
It’s hard not to compare those feelings I had at the beginning of August 2011 to those I have now, in August 2012. I was scared, I was confused, I was also disenfranchised, I felt, by politicians spouting about casting blame had no similarity to the reality that I was experiencing. If anything taught me about the detachment of politicians in their privileged ivory towers, it was their collective responses to those days and continued games of ‘divide and rule.
And this year, how do I feel? I have been carried away by the Olympics, I’ll admit it. I was beginning to feel the excitement as I went to see the Torch Relay and saw it was bringing a feeling of genuine joy. Although I’ve been privileged to attend a couple of events, I’ve also wholly taken part in the free events.
I am not blind to the problems that this country faces – we only need to reflect on the past year and the surmounting war on those who have the least and the games of ‘divide and rule’ which continue to be played but we have to take the positive focus on youth that can be garnished by successful sport but also participation by all and use it to counter some of the perceptions of blame – particularly blame of youth – that entered into general discourse. These problems don’t go away for two weeks, they are still very much alive.
The feeling of pride and the happiness generated in London is about sport at the moment but it isn’t just sporting achievement that can bring these feelings of pride. It is about receiving support and encouragement to excel and to find the area in which you excel – whether that’s athletics, painting, writing or being a compassionate person no more or less – we need to find more ways to celebrate the positives and use these Games as a spring to motivate – not just in sport but beyond.
I’m going to use the example of Mo Farah, 10,000m gold medallist and his story of the support he received from a PE teacher, Alan Watkinson.
Mr Watkinson said: “If he was going to have an chance to progress, someone was going to have to take him under their wing – there were so many distractions that could get in the way.”
He entered Farah for a cross country course and finish second.A few weeks later he finished fourth in a county championship, despite not having spikes.
Soon afterwards Mr Watkinson told him he could run for Great Britain.
And if there’s a lesson to learn from this, I hope it is that. I hope the government and local authorities pick up on that. We have to find people to encourage and push us towards achievement. It doesn’t have to be sport and it doesn’t have to be world-class – but having someone who can mentor, guide and encourage is crucial. It’s not age-specific either. Doubts can emerge at any age and at different stages in life.
photos by Autr Films and Michael Hirst