Forget the hype, forget the cost (for the moment), forget the farces about security, traffic lanes and flags. Let’s embrace the Olympics and make sure theirs is a legacy worth having. And let’s ensure they don’t just benefit the corporates and the capital – fully deserving as their immediate vicinity of East London is.
The biggest sporting show on earth may have been tainted with commercialism and corruption long ago, but it won’t be back here in our lifetimes, so, whatever our reservations, let’s be positive and use its success to ensure the legacy benefits everyone, from whatever age, cultural, economic or geographical background.
Modern Britain is a country of contrasts and nowhere is this more evident than in the vistas from the Olympic Park, taking in both the conspicuous (and many would consider repugnant) wealth of the City, as well as some of the most deprived boroughs in the country.
The last week has reminded us of some other, equally shocking, contrasts. The marvellous performances of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish, hopefully augmented by Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and co in the coming weeks, reinforced Britain’s status as the current number one nation for cyclists of all disciplines. But in comparison to some of our neighbours, notably the Dutch and Scandinavian countries, our provision and infrastructure for cyclists (and pedestrians) is risible and ensures that those who walk, run and cycle through our cities and countryside face unacceptable dangers.
We may have some of the fittest cyclists, tennis players and athletes in the world, but as a nation, we are the most unfit and inactive in Europe, as well as having the highest level of obesity. And, if that isn’t bad enough, London now suffers the worst air pollution of any city in Western Europe and last week statistics revealed that the number of serious road casualties in the UK had risen for the first time in 17 years.
Could these factors be, in any way, related? You bet they are. You don’t have to be a statistical genius to work out that busy, dangerous roads – made even more deadly in the last two years by the removal of speed cameras and ending of “the war against the motorist”, whatever that was – do nothing to encourage parents to allow their children to walk and/or cycle to school, or elderly, disabled or vulnerable people to venture outside at all. Earlier this year, a survey by Sustrans revealed that 56 per cent of the population considered urban roads unsafe to cycle along and 70 per cent wanted residential speed limits reduced to 20 mph. Factor in the withdrawal of public transport (and the relentless rise in fares, where it does still exist) and you have all the ingredients for a society that has become increasingly car-dependent, with catastrophic consequences for our health and safety, to say nothing of the impact on the quarter of the population who simply cannot afford access to a car.
And this is where it is vital that we utilise the legacy of the Olympics. We need to get out more, but we also need to be able to get out more and feel safe when we are out. Forget new swanky, high-tech gyms and the latest fitness/diet fads. For the majority of our population, the best way to get fit, stay fit, save money and help the environment at the same time, is to walk and/or cycle more.
Sometimes negatives breed positives – think the Addison Lee case where the idiocy of its CEO galvinised thousands of cyclists to highlight how powerful the cycle lobby has become It’s great to see Living Streets, for example, using the expected transport chaos as a fantastic opportunity to encourage more people to get walking, with their Get Walking During the Games challenges and the Times continue its Cities Safe for Cycling Campaign following the tragic accident to one of its journalists in London
So, for the next couple of weeks, let’s put aside the many negatives about the London games and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Olympics at close range. Let’s support our amazing athletes and ensure that the lasting legacy of these games helps re-build a society where, once again, it is the norm to travel, safely and enjoyably, to work or school, to the shops, to social events, on foot or on yer bike.