The RSA



The people’s Olympiad

Martin Willis FRSA directed an intercultural community project as part of the West Midland 2012 Cultural Olympiad earlier this year. He argues that more time should be spent celebrating this kind of grass roots activity, which captures the spirit of the people’s Olympics.

On Tuesday 13 March, over 100 people from community groups, voluntary and religious organisations, schools and colleges gathered for the launch of the West Midlands 2012 Cultural Olympiad. They represented thousands of people in grass roots groups who are celebrating the Olympic values of respect excellence and friendship. Their projects range from a two-day festival of learning disabled dance led by Mencap; a six-metre high Godiva awakening in Coventry with actors, dancers, musicians and fireworks; an exhibition examining children’s lives from the 18th century to the present day; and over 30 community games inspired by the 1850 Wenlock Olympian Games.

A few days before, we had all been sent a special email stating that the Leader of Birmingham City Council and the Director of the London 2012 Festival would be making an exciting announcement prior to the general launch of the whole West Midlands programme. What might this be? Extra funding for local cultural and sporting groups? An award recognising the work of community champions? A film project to capture the grass roots creativity of West Midlands people?

On the contrary, the assembled throng were decidedly underwhelmed by being told of the plan to stage the world premiere of Stockhausen’s six-hour opera Mittwoch in Birmingham. The revelation that this will include an extravagant section, in which a string quartet performs in four separate helicopters, was in sharp contrast to the work of local volunteers and community groups, often done on a shoestring.

To be fair, there was mention of the West Midlands Cultural Olympiad events in later speeches, long after most of the dignitaries had left. Right at the end of the 90 minutes launch, we enthusiastically applauded a dance show by a group of young men from Worcester. Is it any wonder that when the Guardian conducted an on-line poll asking readers whether they ‘get’ the Cultural Olympiad; 27 percent said “Yes: this celebration of British art and culture is something to be proud of,” whilst 73 percent opted for “the Cultural O-what-iad?”

A member of the London 2012 creative team explained to me that the Stockhausen announcement secured more press coverage for the programme, including a lot of international press coverage particularly in the US and Germany. But is the Cultural Olympiad about raising international profile, or a way of engaging communities throughout the country in what the UK bid called “the people’s games”?

In the case of the West Midlands, as in many parts of the UK, ‘the people’ is made up of a wonderful mosaic of different communities and cultures. Indeed, London’s cultural diversity was highlighted right at the start as being key to the bid to win the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. This view was warmly supported by Nelson Mandela when he praised London as: “a wonderfully diverse and open city providing a home to hundreds of different nationalities from all over the world”.

The City of Birmingham Choir’s Equinox project is one of many examples in the West Midlands where local groups have embraced the belief of the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, that the games promote understanding across cultures. Over this two year project, we worked with 350 singers and three percussion groups drawn from the region’s Chinese, Arabic, Indian, African Caribbean, Eastern and Western European communities to co-produce a celebration of West Midlands cultures in Symphony Hall. Singing and percussion were chosen because these are the two oldest forms of music making. They open the potential for collaboration and communication between peoples that overcomes the barriers of language, politics and beliefs.

The Symphony Hall event climaxed with all performers combining in the world premiere of a unique composition, Koinonia, by Midlands composer Christopher Long, conducted by Adrian Lucas. The text in Hindi, Mandarin, Polish, Arabic, Swahili and Latin was chosen by the performing groups. We believe that no-one has ever attempted to compose and perform an inter-cultural work on this scale before; one which respects each culture’s different style of singing and harmony, whilst creating a unified whole.

Our performance inspired astonishing exhilaration amongst the audience and performers: “Multicultural Birmingham at its best”; “ I felt as excited as if I had been singing myself”; “Fabulous concert, really blew me away. ” Asked after the event how it was, the leader of the Arabic group said he was: “Still coming down to earth after the buzz of Saturday, the finale piece still ringing in my ears.

This was a rare occasion to witness an audience of Black, Asian, Arabic, Chinese and White European people sharing their music together in Symphony Hall. We were delighted that the West Midlands RSA supported the event and hosted a pre-concert talk. Is it too late for the organisers of the Cultural Oympiad to drop their fixation on extravaganzas aimed at international media and embrace the vision of the people’s games? Fortunately, here in the West Midlands, we are doing it anyway.


Martin Willis FRSA is the City of Birmingham Choir Equinox Project Director. He writes in a personal capacity. Find out more about Equinox.

Share