How community development can help establish an Olympic legacy in a ‘place like Flint’

“Things like this don’t happen in a place like Flint. It’s a once in a lifetime thing for Flint. It’ll never happen again in my lifetime”

Among the triumph and exuberance of the celebrations for Jade Jones’s gold medal at Flint/Y Fflint Sports and Social Club, BBC Radio Wales broadcast this comment from a local woman this morning.

Perhaps it is a throwaway comment, one said in the heat of the moment. But does it hint at a broader mindset? A mindset that sees individual sporting success as exceptional, disconnected to community life, something ‘achieved by others’ and something that happens ‘despite living here’? If it does then a more grassroots-focused, collaborative approach is required that, if underpinned by community development principles, stands a good chance of achieving a genuine, lasting legacy for the 2012 London Olympics. In a place like Flint/Y Fflint, and many towns like it, a true legacy would be one that does see it happen again in her lifetime.

So what needs to be done?

Start by mobilising the community itself to organise itself to lead change. For instance, a community is well able to identify its sporting and leisure resources, strengths and opportunities. Shiny, expensive velodromes and the like are not the answer on their own. The Street Games movement at its heart recognises that sporting opportunities need to be brought to the doorstep at a time and cost that is appropriate to participants.

It needs to be all-inclusive. In truth there are many culturally-entrenched assumptions based on ethnicity, age, class and gender about which sports will appeal to which people and for which ones they will have an aptitude. These are slowly being broken down and for British medals to be won by women in sports such as boxing and taekwondo will help nudge this along. The commitment that community development has to supporting and advocating for marginalised and under-represented individuals can help collectivise participation in all activities including sporting.

History tells us that when people collectivise, change follows. That change usually centres on the re-balancing or re-distribution of power. Community development promotes participatory democracy. So as good as it is for the marginalised and under-represented to take part in sport, to contribute to decision-making processes about the activities in which they take part can lead to rich, imaginative and more empowering sporting experiences. In keeping with the Welsh Government’s desire for citizen-centred services – and a rejection of a consumer model – we might not merely consume sporting activities but shape them as well.

Community development recognsies that it might take time however. Usually it is the communities themselves that are most willing to recognise and commit to this. Funders and agencies need to do so too.

Community development, if done properly, is a reflective learning process, and a process in which all should participate. Learning in this context is very broad. For others to follow in Jade Jones’s footsteps requires there to be formally accredited coaches and mentors. But it also requires the recording, retention and transfer of informal lessons: why do some people ‘drop out’; why are some people taking part and not others; what are people’s true views about facilities and opportunities; what is the impact of external factors; what complements and helps embeds sporting activities and the values that can be gained by participants, and so forth.

Lastly, a community development approach ought to rage against the compartmentalisation, categorisation and thematic labelling of activity in favour of a more holistic approach to activities. For people to take part in sport and to try new sports there needs to be an alignment of local activities and agencies (schools, sports clubs, youth clubs and drop-ins, parental support, local projects of national agencies) with national, regional and programme-level strategies and priorities. Employing the other components of a community development approach outlined here allows for the reconciliation of these vertical and horizontal trajectories. So it is not just sports clubs, infrastructure providers and national sports governing bodies that have a role but schools, local employers, health agencies, planners, and so on. Community development can be the bond that coheres these various interests.

Neither are community development principles confinced to grant or publicly-funded Community Development Workers. Any of the stakeholders referred to here can apply them. So as part of our discussion about the legacy of London 2012, in addition to the inevitable talk of new sporting facilities and top down government programmes, let there also be a brave, imaginative and determined commitment to mobilising all communities to unearth their own future Jade Jones.

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