Opinion: Volunteering will be key to London 2012

Now that the Beijing Olympics are over, I feel a real sense of enthusiasm for the London Olympics in 2012. Beijing's showcase of sporting excellence served to vindicate the International Olympic Committee's faith in the Chinese government's ability to stage such a high-profile event. China was given the opportunity to present its 'revisionist' national character to the world: there was a telling absence of any reference to Mao Zedong in the opening ceremony.

Beijing brought the prospect of London 2012 to life, not only because of the British medal haul, but also because it added an immediacy to the UK's responsibility for holding the games next time. The role of voluntary organisations such as the Youth Sport Trust in developing sporting expertise across the country cannot be overlooked. But caution is required if the games are going to match, let alone surpass, the Beijing experience. Government funding and leadership are needed to support young and emerging sporting talents despite the economic downturn, and quick-fix raids on the Big Lottery Fund must not be allowed. The Beijing games did not happen by magic; one key to their success was an army of 70,000 volunteers. As well as playing a crucial operational role, they were the people who provided a welcome to others from around the world when they arrived and gave them memories when they departed.

We can learn a great deal from the Chinese. Work is under way at organisations such as Volunteering England to establish this essential component of the London games. I hope we can capitalise on the post-Beijing energy and establish a huge body of talented volunteers that truly reflects the diversity and talent of the nation. I also hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will give status to this army of Olympic volunteers and acknowledge them by creating a new class of 'ambassador' specifically for the event. Maybe they could even strike a medal, recognising the lustre that volunteers will add to the even greater number of medals we will strive to win in 2012.

- John Knight is assistant director, policy and campaigns, at Leonard Cheshire Disability: jk.thirdsector@googlemail.com.

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