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The Cultural Olympiad

Steph Webb looks beyond the athletics to the artistic side of the Olympics.

When the Olympic cauldron was lit by seven young athletes at London 2012’s opening ceremony, former Olympic heroes literally handed the torch to the future of British sport. Legacy has always been at the heart of the vision for London 2012 and the ambition to ‘inspire a generation’ extends beyond sport and into art and culture too. It’s something I’ve been very privileged to be a small part of.

The Legacy of London 2012

The organisers of London 2012 have always hoped to harness the power of sport and use it to bring about positive change. Their vision centred on the core values of the Olympic and Paralympic Games:

  • Respect
  • Excellence
  • Friendship
  • Courage
  • Determination
  • Inspiration
  • Equality

A particular effort has been made to reach out to young people with more than 2,000 volunteers joining adult Gamesmakers, and half of the torchbearers belonging to the 12-24 age group.

What is the Cultural Olympiad?

Since 2008, the London Organising Commitment of the Olympic Games has been running what it calls ‘the largest cultural celebration’ in the history of the modern games. To date, more than 16 million people have taken part in programmes and events designed to inspire creativity, and young people especially have been encouraged to participate in the arts.

The Cultural Olympiad and its finale, the London 2012 Festival, is inspired by Olympic history. In Ancient Greece, artists as well as athletes were included in the games. Even as recently as 1948, when London last hosted the Olympics, artists were awarded medals too. And in 2012, the London Games will leave us with memories of great artistic moments as well as sporting success.

My experience

One of the major Cultural Olympiad projects, Stories of the World, encouraged young people from all over the UK to work behind the scenes in museums. A series of exhibitions across the country allowed young people to become curators, film-makers, writers, artists, and musicians. The result was innovative reinterpretations of collections that will hopefully attract new audiences and have a lasting impact on the way museums operate.

I have been lucky enough to work on one of these projects at Leeds City Museum. The finished product, a major new exhibition called Treasured! Smuggled? Stolen? Saved? was entirely curated by a team of 17 young people aged between 16 and 24. In celebration of the world coming to London for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the exhibition explores how treasured objects from all over the globe arrived in Leeds. It reveals the journeys made by world culture items and celebrates their stories.

Stories Of The World has been one of the most special things I've ever been involved with. I've met brilliant new people and together we have produced a great end product that we're all extremely proud of. Throughout the project, we have all enjoyed a sense of ownership of the exhibition and have really been empowered by the museum to make the decisions and implement our vision. I believe our contribution will leave a lasting impact on the way the museum works with young people and I have certainly gained invaluable work experience and many useful employability skills including communication, teamwork, and leadership, decision making and problem solving.

I feel extremely lucky to have been involved with London 2012. Everyone who has taken part in a Cultural Olympiad project has been at least a small part of the Olympics, a historic event for Great Britain. Following the massive success of the games and of Team GB, I feel even prouder to have contributed to and benefited from London 2012's cultural legacy.