Richard Barnes 24.10.11

Richard Barnes Pic

Jack Majewski speaks to Richard Barnes, Deputy Mayor of London on the controversial issues surrounding 2012.

JM: I’m sure that the majority of us remember very well the day when it was announced that London will host the Olympic Games. The sense of elation was immense and there was a great sense of expectation that sport in the UK will change forever. We are now less than a year before the Olympics and this tidal wave of optimism has subsided and there are no visible changes in British sport. Are we facing a situation when this enormous opportunity is being wasted?

RB: This change is happening in a many ways .We certainly will get a legacy of the Games in terms of facilities: the Olympic stadium itself, Aquatic Centre, Velodrome and a massive housing development in East London. However, of far more importance to most of Londoners is whether, as a result of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, they feel that facilities and opportunities for participation have improved in their own area. As Kate Hoey (previous Minister of Sport) always says, “What’s in it for Mrs Bloggs and her two kids living in a housing estate in Lambeth, or on the outskirts of Richmond?” With this in mind, the Mayor has been doing his bit, by investing in sports facilities and programmes to increase participation. 
Where we are failing is getting young people actively involved in sport. Participation rates amongst Londoners of all ages remain unacceptably low. Amongst the adult population, only around 17% of Londoners do the recommended minimum amount of sport or physical activity each week which is 3 x 30 minutes. Things are somewhat different with regards to children, as almost every child is recorded as doing two hours of sport per week within the curriculum, however this requires further analysis. Firstly, are we certain that the quality of sport in schools is always of a suitable standard? Secondly, are children taking part in any sport outside of curriculum time? This second point is particularly important because, if not, then when children hit 16 and stop doing school sport, they will have no experience of sport outside a school setting and are likely to drop out of sport altogether. That is an area where we have to improve dramatically.
On a positive note there is strong evidence that some sports are growing rapidly. Football, cricket and rugby always will be very powerful, but also sports like handball are showing massive growth recently. We have to provide facility for these sports.

JM: You mentioned activities outside curriculum time, however besides football, rugby and cricket there is almost no opportunities for young Londoners to participate in high profile sports. How are the Olympic Games supposed to change this sorry state of affairs?

RB: Olympic Games certainly trigger an investment in both people and facility. The Mayor recognises the huge importance of providing sporting opportunities for young people outside the school setting. As mentioned earlier, he is investing millions in programmes that will do just that. From rugby initiatives to BMX tracks, to dance programmes, to midnight basketball leagues – it is all about creating the kind of opportunities that young people want; and giving them the chance to participate on their own terms. 
The Mayor has 15, 5 million grassroots fund and we have managed to secure further 20 million of match funding. So we are talking about 35, 5 million which will be invested in facilities, training and coaching at grassroots level. The Olympic and Paralympics Games are the best showcase imaginable for the so-called minority sports, and it is absolutely vital that the British national governing bodies for, say, handball or weightlifting really capitalise on this opportunity. In fact some of them already are –how I mentioned before participation rates for handball in this country have risen hugely over the past couple of years. 
One of the most important things that we can do to help develop the minority sports is to encourage the major sports like football and athletics to be cooperative. They could help signpost young athletes on to other sports that might never have crossed their minds. How does a person know if they are a talented handball player if they have never been introduced to the sport? Again, it is all about ensuring that youngsters get the broadest range of opportunities. Equally, we are aware that there are huge numbers of amazing people volunteering in sports clubs, running football teams or coaching netball squads – thousands of people who give up their time to bring the great joys of sport to other people. In many cases the best thing that we can do is to support these people. There may not be the need for a shiny new facility or programme, if we can just offer basic assistance to those already operating then we might get the same (or better) results far more efficiently. 
In summary, there is a decent amount of sporting opportunity for young people in London. However there is still more to be done. We are on an upward curve, and Londoners of all ages are starting to respond to the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The job is far from done, though, and every effort must be made to ensure that, once 2012 is over, we do not allow the advances we have made to wither on the vine.

JM: Speaking of facilities, how can you explain a following situation? The capital of Serbia, Belgrade has 6 professional basketball teams, 2 of them (Partizan and Red Star) are using the massive Pionir Arena (8.500 seats) but far more importantly 4 others are using arenas with a capacity between 1000-2500 spectators. This situation happens as usage of arenas of a manageable scale makes a huge financial sense for them. When will London have such affordable and easy to maintain facilities which could became a long term home for a professional volleyball, basketball or handball team?

R.B: This is a part of the long term legacy. Responsibility of the LOCOG is to deliver successful Games which will be played at 34 venues across the city. The other responsibilities are with the local authorities, local councils and to some degree with educational departments. What we are trying to do is to use excitement created by the Olympics to convince them that they should invest in new facility. Sadly GLA and LOCOG can’t force them to do it; we can only work with them.
I believe that situation is slowly changing. The Borough where I live, Hillingdon has a brand new leisure centre with 50 m swimming pool and a very fine athletic stadium, Ealing has a new centre for Paralympic athletes. So there are symptoms of positive changes but there is no question that the issue of importance of professional sports was neglected in the entire country in recent decades and that must change. That must be our legacy after 2012.

JM: Do you really believe that these years of neglect can be reversed by the Olympics and society here can embrace professional sport, outside football, rugby and cricket as a legitimate career? That requires a deep cultural overhaul, which I’m not so sure people here are ready to embrace. Sir Robin Wales the Mayor of Newham is already warning that without a proper legacy Olympics will be ”nothing but a vanity parade”

RB: Sir Robin is entitled to his own opinions but he is in an unique and privileged position where his borough will host the Olympics and was given 9.5 billion investment. If the people of Newham for some reason will chose not to use this facility to the full, then condemnation goes to Sir Robin not to the LOCOG or GLA .Let me assure you that Olympics is not an exercise in vanity. There is a huge enthusiasm for it. When you think that we will have 80.000 volunteers, of which 60.000 have already been interviewed, plus 8.000 London Ambassadors and all sorts of other events like the Cultural Olympiad, that gives you the scale of the entire enterprise which can play a big role in regenerating big areas of London. This is a big chance for 5 boroughs of London to improve the quality of life and job prospects for their local community.

JM: You keep coming back to enthusiasm for the Games among the young population of London. I’m personally slightly sceptical about this very close connection between the Games and the average young person in London. How are you going to ensure that young people in this City can feel ownership of the Olympics. In the most cases they will watch the events on the TV. Tickets are difficult to get and are expensive.

RB: I agree that some tickets are expensive, but no one has ever pre-sold so many tickets 9 months before the games. You can’t dispute these figures. This level of support will ensure that athletes competing in London 2012 will feel that their efforts are appreciated and valued and they are welcomed here.

JM: I agree that we can’t dispute the fact that you just mentioned but by the same token we can’t dispute the fact that Olympics are and will be used as political tool and will be high jacked by a variety of groups to achieve their goals. Bob Crow the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has recently successfully negotiated a deal for his members which will ensure that they will be paid between £500-1500 extra for work without disruptions during Olympics. It seems to me that if these drivers were really excited about the Olympics they would work for free. Instead they ask a lot of extra money for doing essentially their job!

RB: Everyone has got their own agenda and Bob Crow is doing very well for his members. But to put London in a position of being blackmailed is a different level. So let the people of London judge Bob Crow. I have my own point of view on it and I find it reprehensible. He was in a quite easy negotiating position, he exploited it and he used it to the benefit of his members.7,5 millions of Londoners will judge whether it was justifiable. Of course let’s not forget the rest of the country. London is hosting the Olympics but he will be scrutinised by the entire country.

JM: Speaking about the close scrutiny of the Olympics, surely the financial side of it must be very closely monitored. Recently we woke up to the story  that the London 2012 Olympic Village has been sold to the private British company Delancey  and the investment arm of the Qatari ruling family in a deal that will cost the taxpayer £225m. So not only are Olympics used as a political tool but also as a nice earner for certain groups of people

RB: This is the first time in history when an Olympics Park Legacy Company has been formed before the Games and are an integral part of the developmental process. I understand criticism about apartments at the Olympic Village, but we need to understand that none of them have a kitchen nor proper bathroom and they will require further investment to convert them into liveable accommodation for people. So in fact they are not such a cheap investment .On the other hand people always will find a reason to complain. In this country we have ability to check the teeth on the horse and always criticise something, always try to pull down something. Trust me, the Olympics will be built on time, to the required standard and below budget. People must learn that the Olympic Games are part of our life and stop criticising it. Of course if we have some major failure during the Games, for instance with transportation then we will rightly receive a portion of criticism and derision .But don’t get into a negative syndrome of criticising them just for having them. They are a great advert for London, great advert for the UK and even greater advert for young people of this country. We should relax, sit back and enjoy them, or indeed get actively involved in sport.

JM: Nothing generates more enthusiasm than the success of domestic athletes. I really don’t see GB athletes taking medals in the true blue ribbon events.

RB: And I don’t see many other countries either. I don’t think that there are many countries in contention for a gold medal in 100m sprint. It looks like the medals are already decided, at least the main one. Being completely serious, we have done not bad in the recent Athletics World Championship’s but we can’t ensure that we will win medals, we can’t manufacture winning machines. What we can do is ensure that our athletes have the best possible conditions to prepare themselves for the Games and that we support them properly during the competition. Some sports governing bodies are doing an amazing job, some others need to arrive in the the 21st century. They need to wake up to the realities of the current world and appreciate what kind of money they can generate thanks to the Olympics. Olympics is not a place for governing bodies to get free tickets and see some random competitions.  They must understand that they have to produce athletes who can compete on this level. That this is their biggest opportunity to promote their sport and they have to seize it with both hands. I agree that some of them are too traditionalist, too blazers and ties and that is our job to get them up to speed.