Follow the flame

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Wherever they are held, the Olympics bring together the world's many cultures - making citizenship and internationalism real and exciting, argues Jude Kelly

BUsing the Olympics as a springboard for thinking is not just about notions of sport, it is an educational journey in itself. At its root, the Olympics is a universal festival of youth. It is about idealism and hope for the future. Getting the world in one arena is a huge gesture about peace and about humanity that goes beyond the medal tables and the superstar athletes. It is also a mass celebration - one of the biggest world cultural festivals.

Schools can organise a mini Olympics. But it is important to understand that this should be more than six sporting events held together.

The Olympics is about the flame of peace, the shared cultural landscape. In the way that children today will understand and celebrate Diwali or Ramadan together, putting together a mini Olympics is also about art, culture, food and language. It is about bringing non-English speakers into the school and being able to communicate, not via a common language but through sport and a shared experience.

The opening and closing ceremonies are all available on video. Each ceremony is an artistic expression of a culture. I think that is something for schools to work on. If we won the Olympic bid, how would you create a ceremony that would be a celebration of Britain? What would it have to contain so it could truly capture what Britain is? Not just what Britain was, but what it is and what it could be. If you wanted to welcome every nation of the world, what would that welcome feel like?

Young people should realise that the Beijing Olympics and London's bid for 2012 are two completely different stories. In 2008, every nation in the world will be coming to Beijing. China has been a closed community for many years, so the impact of this influx - with all its languages, traditions and cultures - will be amazing.

The most exciting thing is to imagine being in the Olympic village. Most athletes say that, with or without winning a medal, the most extraordinary experience they'll ever have is living inside the Olympic village with the rest of the world. In Athens there were 10,000 athletes living together, eating different food, speaking different languages, and with their own cultures.

London already has incredible cultural diversity. There are 320 languages spoken in Britain's capital, many of which aren't taught in any schools.

Almost every athlete coming to London could experience a welcome from their own community.

We usually see globalisation as something to do with commerce - the globalisation of brands, such as Nike or Adidas. People in developed countries can be cynical about the Olympics because they think of it as marred by money and corruption. But I think the general power of the Olympics all over the world is much more about idealism and internationalism in a good way.

In African nations the Olympics is about having a neutral space for peaceful endeavour. In times of conflict there's often a period of truce while local games and national events are held.

If you follow the journey of how Beijing is organising the Olympic games for 2008 it will take you into whole new areas of citizenship and internationalism. Imagine what it takes to organise the Olympics once you have won the bid. You need a relationship with every single national Olympic committee - try exploring the arteries that run out from that heartbeat in terms of how a nation relates to the world.

One of the ideas, if we do win the 2012 Olympics, is to create school partnerships. Not just with schools in China, but with other schools, in other parts of the world. You want to create trios or quartets of connections, so that it isn't just one nation to one nation but building a global village.

A result of twinning with Beijing for four years could be an understanding of Chinese language, culture and the incredible journey that China is on.

Most children will have had at least a short experience of being in the limelight. They may have had one line in the school play or received a book because they did well. It's an important psychological moment. Try to understand what happens if you put a nation in the limelight, like Australia. Or a city.

Barcelona was changed forever. Athens will be changed. Being in the limelight, with the whole world looking at you and expecting the best of you, is very powerful. I think, almost without exception, nations have risen to that challenge and have changed for the better because of it.

Interview by Yojana SharmaTheatre director Jude Kelly, OBE, is chair of the 2012 advisory committee for culture and education.

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