How will London 2012 flex the next generation for the future? Charlotte Sankey investigates.
"Dear Mr Sullivan, I now know why I'm unpopular at school. I can make some friends now, thanks."
It's not your typical thank you letter, but it's a deal more touching than most. It was written by a young boy at Northgate Primary School, Sussex, after Keith Sullivan ran a workshop on what makes for good communications – and what doesn't. He took on the task of demystifying the skills that social butterflies take for granted: how to listen, how to know when to move from one idea to the next, how to keep people engaged, how to keep them on side.
Sullivan works for Openreach, the company that lays down the wires, cables and fibres for telecommunications group BT and other UK operators. BT is responsible for the communications services for the Games, which means connecting 94 locations – from London to Cardiff to Glasgow – for the pleasure of spectators in over 200 countries. That may sound like challenge enough, but the management is also keeping an eye on who'll be using these channels in years to come.
Which explains what Sullivan was doing in the primary school. His workshop was part of the Communications Triathlon, a project by children's communications charity I CAN in collaboration with Openreach, as part of the official London 2012 education programme for UK schools and colleges. This 'triathlon' aims to train primary school children in the three 'T's – thinking, talking and teamwork. Activities include Secret Striker, a game based on blink murder to encourage eye contact during conversation, and Sports Bingo, to develop listening and categorisation skills.
The young boy at Northgate Primary is testament to the project's success. "[I'm unpopular] because I don't listen to the others", he says, offering a scorchingly intimate breakthrough for the record. "I've realised I 'bulldoze' them when I'm talking to them." If only you could bottle that kind of insight and hand it out on the street…
Parents are on side too, with lists of interesting facts to keep the conversation flowing at home. ('Guess how many football pitches you could squeeze into the Olympic Park? 180? No, higher… Higher, again… Yes, really, I'm not joking! As many as 357…')
The need for some magic in a bottle is pretty pressing. According to I CAN, one child in 10 in the UK has communication difficulties that require specialist help. And for Sir Mike Rake, Chairman of BT as well as of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, this is a time-bomb of a problem.
"Communication skills are the most important employability skills", he says. "A lack of them in a candidate is a deal breaker for many employers."
Tim Palmer, Head at St Osyth's, Essex – one of 1,500 primary schools that took part – agrees. "Forget the educational aspect of this project", he says. "Put simply, communication is fundamental to everything we are all doing. It's life. We are trying to help the young to have better lives, and I've seen the power such projects can have. The Olympics offers a great excuse to boost work we are already doing."
Skilling up the next generation is one thing; inspiring them is another. Given that the strapline for the Games is 'Inspire a generation', the Cultural Olympiad was a cornerstone of London's bid, and one of the reasons for its success. It's the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements, according to LOCOG, and its sponsors include BP, BT, the Olympic Lottery Distributor, the Arts Council and Legacy Trust UK – an independent charity set up to create a lasting cultural and sporting legacy from the London 2012 Games. This enormous undertaking has seen 16 million people, many of them under the age of 18, take part in over 12,000 activities – from dance to film to art to poetry – since 2008. That's enough creative juice to rival the flow of lactic acid…
The Tate Movie Project was one of the biggest activities, producing 'The Itch of the Golden Nit': an animated film in which 34,000 children worked on everything from the drawings to the story board to the soundtrack, in collaboration with Aardman, the creators of 'Wallace and Gromit'. It was no low-budget endeavour, with £4 million in funding from Legacy Trust UK and BP.
Another initiative by the National Portrait Gallery and BT, Road to 2012, saw free outdoor photography exhibitions in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Birmingham. Photographers of international renown, including Bettina von Zwehl, Emma Hardy and Brian Griffin, captured the journey towards the Games of world-class athletes, those working behind the scenes, and people living in the host boroughs.
Other projects saw young people reciting love poetry in tents, painting athlete portraits as part of BP Portrait Award: Next Generation, and making short films for BT's Big Voice and Panasonic's Film Nation: Shorts.
But what – you may ask – do all these arts and communications activities have to do with a sports tournament? Does the run-up to the Oscars involve football matches or rowing regattas? You wouldn't be alone. A straw poll in The Guardian and a more comprehensive one for IPSOS MORI show that between 50% and 73% of people don't 'get' the Cultural Olympiad, despite its huge scale.
I put the question to David Stubbs, Head of Sustainability for LOCOG. "It all goes back to the original philosophy of the Olympics", he explains. "Particularly to Pierre de Coubertin who created the modern concept of the Games in the 1890s." Coubertin's vision was of artists and sportspeople side by side, for the betterment of the whole person, not just their muscles. Leonardo da Vinci, and other polymaths, would have approved.
Another message the Cultural Olympiad is trying to get out there is that real success goes beyond individual achievement. The competing athletes take the crowd along with them: whether it's their neighbours watching on the telly, or national cheerleaders who've made the trip to London, or a child whose eyes are tied to the graceful somersaults of a diver. We're all represented somehow, and with each new record the potential of the whole human race is enhanced.
Which is why Stubbs is particularly proud of the projects that use the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a springboard to train up the next generation of leaders. Dan Goss, a 17-year-old from Waltham Forest, is one of 100 teenagers selected to be on the London 2012 Young Leaders Programme, supported by BP, The National Young Volunteers Service and The Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust.
Dan's project was to organise a cycle ride for local teenagers through Epping Forest. He'd never done such a thing before, and was disappointed by the turn-out. But, he says, "We've learned how we could have marketed the bike ride better, not relying just on Facebook. Our aim was to make local people appreciate the forest on their doorstep, which young people tend to take for granted.
But the main thing the other leaders in Waltham Forest and I gained is a massive appreciation for people who organise events. I now understand much better the time it takes, the preparation required, and how much energy you need! This experience will help me so much in the future."
"I don't like the term 'leader' though", adds Dan. "I'm a leader, but I don't know everything. Leadership's just about being able to listen and communicate and delegate and do your best."
Who said young people these days are too full of themselves?
Charlotte Sankey runs Creative Warehouse, a communications agency specialising in environmental issues, arts and education.
Photos: StreetGames / The Coca-Cola Company; Brian Griffin / BT Road to 2012 ;