Let's celebrate the Games Makers on the fourth plinth

The anti-Paxmans in purple deserve public recognition.

The purple people. They were quite simply one of the big sensations of this London 2012 extravaganza.

Games Makers came in all shapes and sizes, and looked like us; just normal people, but with an extra dash of cheeriness harking back to the days of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but without his insane accent.

So let’s do something to honour their contribution by placing a statue on that fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square where so many thousands of them gathered this week for the London 2012 parade.

We really should remember those purple volunteers. What they brought with them was a sense of fun, and a rather unbritish ability to talk to strangers and bounce throughout the day.

These were the anti-Paxmans. They didn’t have an ounce of British irony, they weren’t the masters of sarcasm we have come to believe we are and they really, really wanted us all to have a great day.

So all hail the purple people. They have shown us it can be British to be friendly in a public place, and to show a touch of enthusiasm. And it doesn’t have to come with a spoonful of Disneyified slush.

In fact the volunteers have a whole bunch of lessons for us. They have taught us (in case we had forgotten/or never known) that it can be fun to do something for someone else. They have shown us we can enjoy being part of something rather than sniping from the sidelines.

They helped transform London into a place where people do speak to each other on trains and buses. And, yes, there was always a purple person on hand to chat to about the day’s highlights, and share some excitement about the events of the night before.

During London’s summer of loving itself a little bit more than it did before, the purple people were there to help.

And the mayor of London and the city’s burghers should do something to recognize that contribution, by creating a statue to stand on that plinth.

Out on Fleet Street yesterday filming interviews with the public about wanted they wanted to see as a legacy to this heady period, people just wanted to talk about keeping the friendliness and spirit alive.  One interviewee wanted less negative stories in the media, another wanted to encourage more volunteering but said: “It’s about us, not the government, making it happen.”

The volunteers we spoke to for the film for the thinktank British Future wanted to keep on volunteering, and were enthusing about their experiences, the people they had worked with and what they might do next. One Games Maker told us at great length about the human resources manager at Stratford who had co-ordinated  the volunteers, and told us she would definitely make a great legacy leader.

Then when the floats went by, the athletes were as enthusiastic about waving to their volunteers as the crowds were at waving back, a sign of their recognition for all the efforts of those who wore the purple uniforms.

The volunteers may not have got any jazzy medals to show for it; and I doubt they will be receiving anything in the New Year’s list, so let’s do something creative to show our appreciation.

Boris should unveil a statue of the Games Makers on the fourth plinth before Christmas and invite all of them along to help celebrate; give them a proper party that’s just for them as recognition of just how much they have done to help cheer up this country.

Rachael Jolley is editorial director at thinktank British Future.

Games Makers waiting for Team GB on the Mall. Photograph: Getty Images
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era