The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games give councils ample chances to catch the public’s imagination - not just in sport, but in the arts, culture and education too.
“The Olympics is a one-off opportunity to inspire people,” says Chris Hespe, the council’s head of sport, leisure and Olympics. “We wanted to do something whether it was going to be London or Paris.”
Several years on, Kent County Council and four other councils - Dorset County Council, Essex County Council, Greenwich Council and Hackney LBC - have been awarded beacon status for the way in which they are using the London Olympic and Paralympic Games legacy to encourage their communities to be more active.
The games, says Mr Hespe, is an opportunity to inspire people far beyond sport - in areas such as education, the arts and volunteering. And for the council, it is an opportunity to achieve and exceed its ambitions - whether in terms of inward investment, tourism or regeneration.
The range of activities being energised under the banner of London 2012 is so vast that two of the councils have found it useful to group some activities together.
Last year’s ‘Spirit of the Sea’ festival in Dorset, for example - which will run every year up to and beyond 2012 - saw 33 activities promoted over nine days, with everything from seafood festivals and street processions to boat ballet and rowing regattas.
Gary Fooks, Team Dorset 2012’s legacy manager, says that having a common brand inspired more groups to become involved, and the festival organisers to arrange more events.
Estimates suggest the festival resulted in an additional 35,000 visitors to the area, who spent£1.43m in the local economy.
Create is an annual celebration of art, culture, festivals and performance which taps into the rich diversity of cultures across the boroughs and offers local residents an eclectic mix of entertainment, including street parades, parties, opera and a celebration of unsung heroes.
“It may not be new, but having the events under one umbrella has meant more people are taking part,” says Hackney’s elected mayor, Jules Pipe (Lab). “We hope that it will be as big as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by 2012.”
Several of the beacon winners are also using ‘taster days’ to encourage local residents to try something for the first time: whether it is getting advice on healthy living (Greenwich), training opportunities (Hackney), or an introduction to sailing for£5 (Dorset).
The latter seems to have been particularly successful. Sailing suffers from an elitist image and a half-day in a boat normally costs£25, explains Mr Fooks, but the heavily discounted price attracted 1,500 children to give the sport a try in 2008.
Some of the activities promoted by the beacons are what one might expect of any council - such as promotion of sport among schoolchildren and physical activity among adults.
But Kent believes that the excitement it has generated - and witnessed - in the run-up to London 2012 has already increased sports participation in and between its schools.
The county’s inaugural School Games in 2008, which will become a biennial event, was one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, says Mr Hespe.
Five hundred primary, secondary and special schools took part, involving 30,000 participants. It covered 23 different sports, and culminated in the award of 1,200 medals.
But sport can be an individual challenge as well as a competition with others. And as part of a 10-week sports coaching programme in Hackney, for example, children from 10 primary schools were given tasters of five Olympic sports, with prizes awarded to those who most improved their personal best.
“It is to break away from the traditional school athletics days, when the same kids win all the events,” says Mr Pipe.
Team Dorset, meanwhile, is encouraging local residents to take up any one of five challenges - either by themselves, or with friends or family - covering the themes of exercise/sport, healthy living, journey to work/school, participation in the community, and learning and cultural events.
“There is a tendency to see the Olympics as just sport - but it is not,” says Mr Fooks. “It can encourage people to get out and do things such as enjoy our beautiful coast, or to have a more healthy lifestyle.”
Essex has adopted a different tactic: it is using the county’s long-standing links with Jiangsu, China, to encourage greater local interest in Chinese art, culture, martial arts and other sports.
Four thousand people attended last year’s cultural festival, EASTmeetsWEST, with another event planned for 2010. The council is also encouraging local businesses to take advantage of the Olympics, and nearly 2,000 have signed up for a national service, CompeteFor, which alerts them to contract opportunities.
In addition to paid employment, the games will require 70,000 volunteers to help organise events, and several councils are using this to promote volunteering among their residents.
Hackney is targeting socially excluded groups, and last year recruited 50 people for a 10-week training programme that covers topics such as fire awareness, public safety and interpersonal
Any that graduate from the course are given a nationally recognised qualification and are guaranteed an interview to become one of the games’ volunteers.
Other councils have focused on investing in their sports facilities. Greenwich has used Building Schools for the Future money to equip schools with new sporting facilities - it also secured£650,000 from the Department for Communities & Local Government to improve outdoor sporting facilities in local parks.
Essex has allocated£2m for sports investment in 14 local schools and£5m for the building of a new sporting village, which includes a swimming pool, in Basildon.
Frances Dolan, Greenwich’s director of culture and community services, offers three lessons for any council looking to reap benefits from London 2012. “You can use the games to increase people’s participation in sport, but also raise the profi le of an area, attract inward investment, and encourage economic activity,” she says.
“Many of our initiatives, such as the Sportathon, are transferable to other areas; you don’t have to be a host council.”
Kent and Dorset stress the need for partnership working as the way to emulate their achievements.
“The wider the partnership the better,” says Mr Hespe. “We now have [departments such as] transport talking to sport, and education to tourism.
“The enhanced, cross-sectoral working could be the biggest legacy of the games. It is resulting in all sorts of ideas and new ways of working - innovative and creative thinking to old problems.”
Mr Fooks concludes: “The games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You have got to grasp it passionately, and be prepared to take risks and think outside the box.
“It provides a catalyst and an accelerator for change, and the chance to lever in additional funding.”