Why the 2012 London Olympics had a limited impact on volunteering in the UK

As London prepared to host the 2012 Olympics, 250,000 people applied to sign up as official “Games Makers”. Of these, 70,000 were ultimately selected to wear the signature purple-red volunteer uniforms. For 40% of them, it was their first time doing something like this.

In the run-up to the Games, Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Organizing Committee, emphasized the importance of this kind of community engagement. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Olympics,” he said. “The 1948 London Olympics marked the beginning of the Games’ volunteer program, and we are determined that London 2012 will be a great opportunity for tens of thousands of people to help host the most spectacular Games ever.”

From the start, the idea was not just to involve people in the event, but also to inspire them to continue volunteering well beyond the 16 days of the Games themselves. Furthermore, this involvement was seen as a strategic means to get people into a full-time, paid job.

A key aim was to bring people as well as businesses, institutions and city authorities together to focus, as the Department for Media, Culture and Sport put it, on the long-term development of London. Volunteering at mega sporting events such as the Olympics can give people a sense of pride and enthusiasm and motivate them to find other ways to stay involved in the community over the long term.

Volunteers in pink vests help visitors out.
Games Makers took on a wide variety of roles during the London Olympics.
Frederick Wood People | alamy

But later research has shown that if people have continued to volunteer in the decade since the London Olympics, it was not due to any formal or coordinated effort on the part of the Games’ planners. In fact, many volunteers were unaware of such plans. Rather, their enthusiasm was born in more ad hoc ways from people’s positive memories, personal experiences and nostalgia in London 2012.

What volunteers from London 2012 did?

For some people, volunteering at the London Olympics was all about getting free tickets to the best sporting events in the world. For others, ‘wearing purple’, as one volunteer put it, also meant an opportunity to develop important skills.

Games Makers’ duties encompass a wide variety of duties, from stewards, drivers and reception staff to supporting athletes and checking tickets. Others helped with costumes, equipment, and accreditation, or performed during the event’s ceremonies.

For many volunteers, this meant taking on strategic and leadership roles with the belief that this would provide them with more employment opportunities later on. Indeed, some have since spoken of how skills developed during that time have proved useful in work-related situations or future volunteering. London 2012 looks good on a resume.

Government figures released in 2013 showed that the proportion of people volunteering at least once a year rose from 65% in 2010 to 71% in 2012. This was to be expected: the enthusiasm and anticipation in the run-up going to a big event creates what experts call the “inspiration effect”. However, figures from 2021 showed a dramatic decline in volunteering in England compared to 2013/14.

People in life jackets on inflatables in the waves.
Volunteers on a mountain rescue team on the North Yorkshire coast in 2019.
Tom Woollard | Shutterstock

In 2016, one of us (Niki) and colleagues conducted a volunteer survey in London 2012 to find out if the Olympics had inspired them to continue volunteering. Of the 77 people interviewed, 44 said they had indeed volunteered at other sporting events or in the community.

For others, however, their London 2012 experience was more complex. Some said they just felt like “another pair of hands”, or that the London 2012 organizers hadn’t invested in the right training or role assignment that would meet their unique needs.

In particular, many reported not being aware of Join In, the official legacy organization created in May 2012 by the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport to provide opportunities for former volunteers in local sports clubs and communities or at sporting events after the games. (These capabilities were distributed via email in the Games Maker database and were also posted on the official website.)

Outdated plans need more attention

While London 2012 promised a strong legacy of volunteers, research suggests that those responsible for implementation prioritized the implementation of the event itself as opposed to longer-term social development goals. It’s common for Olympic Games organizers to keep their eyes off the ball when it comes to legacies of various kinds, from funding post-Game regeneration projects and protecting affordable housing to developing skills associated with the Games’ volunteer programs.

One of the main problems is that London lacked the proper governance plans to ensure that the promised legacies would remain a priority for the country and thus have a long-term impact. Despite projects such as Join In being put in place, there was not enough careful consideration of how Games Makers would take advantage of the post-Games opportunities, and there was no clear skills development program to build on what they had learned in London 2012.

It could therefore be said that the inspiration effect the Olympic planners had been fishing for was not the result of a coordinated effort by any official body – be it the London Organizing Committee, the UK Government, the local voluntary sector or any other institution. used to be. This is partly because legacy plans are often rolled back after the closing ceremonies of the Games.

Those responsible for planning London 2012 wanted to use the volunteer program for community growth. Yet research shows that some segments of the UK population (low income, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities) were underrepresented in Games Maker’s workforce.

The volunteers in London 2012 were mainly white British (80%) and worked full time (50%). Just over a third came from London (34%), a fifth from the South East (21%) and a further 13% from the East of England. About 4% had a disability. Scotland and Wales both contributed 2% of the volunteers.

Read more: London’s Olympic legacy: survey reveals why £2.2bn investment in PE in primary education has failed teachers

This highlights that while the Olympics can be a useful one-off project to simulate short-term benefits, unless the goals of such an event are fully aligned with the long-term development strategies of the host city and country, much of the good work and momentum of the event is lost.

Volunteering appears to be a stepping stone to more volunteering, paid opportunities and getting people back to work. If the kind of hefty investment in mega sporting events that was required in London 2012 is being sold to the public on the basis of this kind of wider community engagement, much more careful thought needs to be given to exactly how this is being achieved. Recruitment needs to be inclusive, people need better training – and crucially, legacy plans need to be funded and followed up.

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