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The Champions Summit: Power, Democracy & The Olympic Games

February 16, 2011

de Coubertin revived the Olympics at the end of the 19th century because he believed that sport and sporting competition were good for the soul. Particularly for young people. He saw it as a way to mould confident, rounded citizens for the 20th century. In many ways the regimentation and rules of the sports and sporting competition he loved, mirrored a deferential, structured society with clear sources of power and authority. Playing sport would mould you for government, the army, the judiciary, schools – sport as a rehearsal for power. The power to make a better world. A dream of something better.

A century later the world isn’t so simple. Our societies are less deferential, governments less respected, professionals less trusted.  Power just isn’t in such obvious places or exercised in such clear ways – it’s in businesses, in science, the media, trade unions, in culture, on the internet, in religions, networks, campaigning groups, lobbyists etc etc Our way of understanding our own power in the world is complicated further by a gathering awareness of the connected nature of so many issues – we live in countries which are connected by economies, which are connected to the environment which is connected to us. Now tell me what coffee you want to buy! This all makes the experience of being a citizen a bit different to 1894. We are simultaneously alienated by the enormity of it all and yet empowered by the sense that almost everything we can do from shopping, to transport decisions, to the groups we join and the career paths we choose can make a difference to some collective goal. Excitingly societies have become characterized by many ‘rival’ sources of social action – charities, hacktivists, ngos; social businesses, designers and architects; tv chef led movements… maybe even A New Direction (!) these days the world is progressed through many hands and influences working in so many different ways.

But just because the world is different today, doesn’t mean that the Olympics can’t be a preparation for power and effective citizenship. It might just mean that Olympic education starts to look a bit more like this….

I’m writing here, sitting on a stool in a dark cave underneath London Bridge railway station.  My feet are cold, but it feels warm down here. The room is filled with the sound of Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye and Althea and Donna – good things to be listening to if you want to think about the world. I’m here because I’m hanging out with Emergency Exit Arts who, as part of their Making Signs of Change project are staging a Champions Summit for 100 children chosen from schools across London.

They didn’t know where where they were going when they woke up this morning and most of them hadn’t met each other before, but they now all have a shared mission. Here is it is (I’ve been spending the last couple of days going a bit loopy trying to write about the role of the arts and culture in saving the planet, so I found this kind of moving!):

There’s this Elvis Costello quote which is something like ‘writing about music is like dancing to architecture’ – some of the work I’ve seen this morning is a bit like that. I don’t know if I could completely explain why I like it. But I’m going to try.

The project is about power. The young people here have a mission to change something – and to change something is to explore how we as people can make a difference to the world in which we live – what power we have to affect what happens. They have to think about what they want to communicate, who they want to communicate to, how and for whom. As nominated champions here, the next phase of the project will be for children to go back to their schools and share their mission – they will learn about the responsibility that comes with authority and how to use power they have been given. Pow!

This project is about Democracy. The children here are aged 7-16 and they’re all from different schools – from very different parts of London. Some of them may have a focus on ecology and environment in their schools, some may know nothing. This means the way they talk to each other and come to decisions has to be carefully managed to ensure that everyone is included. There is nominating shared priorities, there are fun ways to bring random groups together, there are sensitive ways of people letting others know what they do and don’t know so others can help them. And of course there is this other-worldly space, which kind of levels the playing field. There are no kids standing at the side, looking at their feet.

This project is about the Olympics. Everyone here is forming a dream of something better and thinking about how to achieve it. And that dream is connected to the fact that The Olympics in 2012 are happening here in London next year. Something good that would otherwise not have been possible, now is possible because the Olympics exists. You can’t say that about everything the Olympics does, but you can say it about this.

So I guess that’s it really. I like this project because it’s real and yet it’s not real.  Sitting here I feel a bit like I’m watching a play as we move through endless different exercises, discussions, where the children have different roles, but a role they can interpret for themselves. Maybe I’ve just forgotten what being at school is like. Or maybe I’ve just forgotten what my school should have been like. Our imagination is conditioned by experience, and maybe to imagine a better world you have to experience something like this.

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