This article has been published at www.christian.co.uk

The legacy of the London 2012 Olympics will take many forms in addition to the sports facilities, affordable homes and new green open space in a deprived area of the city. However, much of the legacy will take years to appear, and this particularly applies to the role-model effect expressed in the slogan ‘Inspire a Generation’.

Some competitors have been open about the way their Christian faith has inspired and sustained them through the challenges that are an integral part of training and competing. Others, when interviewed during the course of the Games, have looked back to Beijing 2008, to inspirational performances that spurred them on to become part of London 2012. In his new Legacy role, Lord Coe will no doubt do his best to ensure that the momentum from 2012 is maintained in every way possible, and at every level of performance. Local clubs now welcoming a surge of newcomers to their track and pool sessions - doing their best to harness the current wave of enthusiasm - have an important part to play, as do local authorities. And schools.

At the start of the Games, Lord Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, highlighted the fact that over 50% of Team GB’s medallists in Beijing came from fee-paying schools, and called for more effort to be put into harnessing the talents of the 93% of pupils in state education. Since the Games ended, the Sutton Trust has revealed that 54% of British medal winners in rowing in 2012 had been educated at independent schools, with the figure being 37% across all sports. The trust chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, added, ‘This comes as no surprise as children in independent schools benefit from ample time set aside for sport, excellent sporting facilities and highly qualified coaches, while in many state schools sport is not a priority, and sadly playing fields have been sold off’.

While statistics concerning athletes’ educational backgrounds are of value to those keen to speak up for more sport in state schools - and having enjoyed athletics and team sports in that context I count myself among them - commentators must seek to provoke constructive debate, to ensure that the issues are fully teased out. Complex problems often have complex solutions. Media preferences include clear ‘answers’ to use in headlines but, when their simplicity obscures important complexities, this fails to serve wider interests.

Medal winners at London 2012 frequently listed numerous unseen helpers who had played a part in their journey to the podium. Alongside coaches who had guided towards new heights, there was the army of sports scientists and medical experts now apparently needed to stay competitive. However, many of the elite athletes also paid tribute to their parents’ faithfulness in providing transport, equipment, emotional support and much more, especially at the fledgling stage of their careers. Other medallists spoke of what had inspired them to embrace the discipline necessary to succeed at a high level in their chosen sport, or of the way in which someone else’s dogged determination to press on through difficulties (sporting or otherwise) had given them the impetus to do the same.

Self-discipline and stickability can be learned in a school context but, sadly, so can many far less desirable things. Family and social settings can be even more influential, both positively and negatively. In recent years, concern has been expressed about young people finding their role models among the ‘stars’ of reality TV shows. On some of these programmes, celebrity judges or participants give the impression that fame and success flow from a readiness to cause offence or to be outrageous in other ways. Tellybug’s figures reveal the high level of tweeting that surrounds such programmes and their participants. So for many viewers, especially in younger age groups, social media chatter supplements the effect of the images, conversations and dramas being played out on TV screens.

Young people aggravating their parents by taking up unsuitable role models is nothing new! In a family or church context, it’s tempting for those of us who are middle aged or older to tut and shake our heads over ‘the young people of today’ - conveniently forgetting the waves we made as the young people of yesterday.

It’s constructive to welcome the good things the new sporting heroes can teach the up-and-coming generation, but it’s not just medal-winning athletes who have the capacity to influence others. We are ourselves teaching daily life-lessons to those around us - by our attitudes to success, failure, difficulties, honouring commitments and so on - influencing the kind of people the next generation will one day grow up to be.

At various points during the Olympics I was reminded of the sporting metaphors the Apostle Paul used in his letters. For example, to the church in Corinth he wrote that ‘Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training’ (1 Corinthians 9:25). We’ve heard exactly the same thing from athletes and their supporters in recent weeks! How many present-day followers of Jesus will, as Paul suggested, allow themselves to be challenged by the example of those who have trained hard to earn ‘a crown that will not last’? If we take Paul’s warning about not ‘running aimlessly’ (verse 26), and allow Jesus to form his character in us as we keep company with him, perhaps we also may be able to inspire a new generation?

Pamela Evans is the author of Shaping the Heart: Reflections on spiritual formation and fruitfulness and two other books, published by BRF.

Additional resources

Information about Shaping the Heart and independent reviews may be found at http://www.brfonline.org.uk/9781841017266/

The Girl Guide organisation has published research on role models for girls that makes interesting reading. Go to http://www.girlguiding.org.uk/home.aspx and click on ‘role models’.

More information may be found on Pamela’s website, including free material for group or personal reflection and Bible study on the subject of heroes and their influence, at http://www.pamelaevans.org.uk/docs/studynot2.pdf.