New Social Capital Will Be the Real Legacy of the Games

02/09/2012 23:05 BST | Updated 31/10/2012 09:12 GMT

The Schumacher Institute completed a pilot of its SocialCapitalist project in Spring 2012. The SocialCapitalist project is based on the idea that during an economic downturn it is not just financial capital that is destroyed. Growing problems such as unemployment and personal debt means that social capital, the bonds between individuals that make a community work, is destroyed even while less money is available to prevent this decline. Action on employment usually focuses on the demand side of the jobs market, making sure that the workforce is productive, purposeful and motivated. But during a protracted recession, attention is also needed on the supply side, ensuring that we have productive and sustainable communities on which a successful economy is built.

The financial crisis has already created Britain's longest recessionary cycle, more quarters of growth below the long-term average than even the Great Depression. This creates a real need, therefore, to replenish our reserves of social capital. Thought needs to be given to how we create this new social capital, however, and the Olympics and Paralympics provide a great illustration of the potential to do this, as well as of the attendant hazards along the way.

Olympic and Paralympic success creates what sociologists see as a virtuous type of social capital. Investment in sports infrastructure creates a visible and impactful advert to participate in sport and adopt a healthy lifestyle, with all the associated benefits to communities of vibrant sports clubs, leisure facilities, and professional sports franchises. The benefits are not just counted in terms of physical infrastructure, but also in the benefits understood to return to communities when more people have a stake in the human infrastructure of their neighbourhoods.

However, another type of social capital exists, a darker form, which could also be the legacy of this Olympic moment. Imagine, for example, if a Rotary Club meets every month, and the members, as well as having a good time, have a collection for a local charity. Imagine also if certain members of the Club take on management positions, such as membership secretary or treasurer. A close look at many organisations show a similar pattern of people who get involved not just once, but in several organisations at a time.

Imagine again what would happen if the members of the Club decided not to devote their time to Rotary anymore, but decided to just have informal dinner parties among themselves. Some social capital would remain, the individuals concerned would remain connected with their friends, and they would presumably remain concerned about each other if any of their number experienced some misfortune.

But what would be lost would be any benefit that extends beyond the group. As well as a loss of charitable donations following the closure of the Rotary Club, a community loses its human infrastructure, those good-egg secretaries and treasurers who serve on more than one committee at a time, as well as the example and inspiration they give for others to join in.

The danger from the Olympics is that the enormous enthusiasm for the event only translates to people watching sport on television, or the Olympic Park becoming a gentrified archipelago in a declining East End. The tricky task of getting people to leave their social comfort zone, what is known as 'bridging social capital', rather than inspiring people only to watch and consume, what is known as 'bonding social capital' is what the organisers now fretfully call legacy.

The Paralympics are not yet over, but already the legacy is under threat. A particularly dog-whistle type of response from David Cameron and sections of the Conservative media, timed perfectly for the Olympic closing ceremony, that all schools should have a minimum number of hours competitive sport a week, was designed to push Tory ideological buttons. It also neatly segues into a Daily Mail form of retrospection, one that focuses on the problems in our communities as stemming from moral weakness bred by a sort of generalised liberal perfidy: 'I was made to play rugby and football at school and it never did me any harm'.

All the while, the 'legacy' of the Games has done nothing to dissuade the Government from selling school playing-fields as part of their agenda of austerity, no matter what the future benefit may be from having to spend less on obesity, diabetes and heart disease, not to mention the less tangible benefit of stronger, more resilient, better connected communities.

I was educated in the 1980s and early-1990s, and I remember everybody-gets-a-prize day. But I was six years old. Later on I played competitive sports in PE; rugby, football and the like. It is not unreasonable to say that the educational needs of six year olds are different to those of teenagers, and the wider lessons learnt from sport and exercise are going to be different. The success of professional football, rugby or cricket (not to mention their business model) shows that kids are not short of competitive sports role models.

We need a system that encourages a culture of life-long fitness for all, whilst also nurturing the elite who will only ever be the products of an unusual combination of the right genes, mental toughness, visionary parents and access to expensive and often subsidised training facilities and coaches. The physical capital that is just as important as the social. To take the lesson from the games that an unadultered competitive spirit is the only legacy Britain needs, and to use the opportunity of the Olympics to take heavy-handed political advantage (not to mention trying to score clumsy ideological points) suggests that the legacy has been left in poor hands.