In the build-up to the last Olympics, there was a lot of talk about the benefits that hosting the Games would bring to London and the rest of the country. Not all of them came to anything. But here Sue Mott learns about one project, in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium, which has lasted the test of time and is still helping troubled youngsters in the East End
Vinnie doesn’t know he’s in a poem. He’s just massively whacking a pink hockey ball from one side of the blue Astroturf to the other. He’s laughing, though his mum only died three weeks ago and this is a terribly traumatic time. His teammates, in all their resplendent variety – boy, girl, able, (so-called) disabled, school age, older, homegrown, foreign-born, local, far-flung – are laughing, too. They know about Vinnie’s mum. He can talk about it if he wants to. Or not.
This is the human legacy of London 2012. One small, vital, sparky part of it. There’s a poem by Dame Carol Ann Duffy on the wall outside the Lee Valley Stadium where they’re playing. The lines are picked out in irregular gold letters on a metal background and they’re catching the watery evening sun.
‘This is legacy –
young lives respected,
sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong …’
And here they are, the FRE Flyers, belonging.
The idea began in 2011 to give children in the immediate vicinity of the Olympic Park a reason to view the upcoming sporting extravaganza as something to do with them, not an alien imposition. They were unlikely to be able to afford any tickets. They were unlikely to be in organised sport – or even school. Some were more likely to be in a good deal of trouble. Stevie, 15, talked at the time about knifings and murders by gang members. That’s what the Stratford postcode meant to them.
But the idea bubbled along and the GB men’s hockey team turned up in to the East End to coach them. Not entirely without trepidation. The first time they all met in one room, the players were terrified and the children suspicious. But it took less than an hour to tear down the barriers. They chatted, laughed, misbehaved (mainly the players) and discussed ideas for their new name. In the end they chose FRE Flyers. FRE for Friendship, Respect, Excellence – the Olympic values.
Well, good luck with that, onlookers thought, cynically. The children, aged from about 10 to 16, had never held a hockey stick in their hands before. They thought the sport was for toffs. Eye-rollingly ridiculous. How would they ever commit to an activity brought to them by a bunch of elite Olympians?
Except they did. They still do.
There isn’t a huge turn-out this particular evening as former sports minister, Helen Grant, comes to see them. It’s not a dutiful or political visit on her part, she just loves the sound of them and wants to see for herself. But it’s holiday time and some are off working in the surrounding area at local play schemes; others are away with family, like Jordan. It would have been good to meet the player who memorably told a recent visitor: “I have a disability, but it doesn’t disable me.”
Vinnie is here, though. He’s commuted from Watford just for the couple of hours of training. Min’s arrived, too. She’s 14, always the first to training, she wants to work in a hospital one day. Her elder sister, Shea, applying to train in multi–trade for the construction industry, is padding up to play in goal. Bobby, the other goalie, who is training to be a chef, is grumbling about putting on so much gear in this heat. He’s accompanying his younger brother, Calum, 13, quite the star, who trains with Leyton Orient at football but still comes to FRE Flyer practice every Friday.
Why? “Because I’ve adapted into the best player here,” he said with a ravishing smile.
His brother glares at him ferociously.
The team is run by ‘Mama Jo’. You’d call her the ‘mother hen’, except no poultry comparison does justice to a woman who across her long and varied career in some of the more challenging areas of the capital has faced various threats of violence and harm. A former British swimmer, she is an irresistible force: strict, fierce, fair, honest. But when one of the children has a problem, they call her. Or text. In the middle of the night sometimes. “You know what, darling …” she often begins her response. And then tells them the truth. Mainly unvarnished. They respect that.
On the pitch this particular evening, one of the Flyers is having a tremendous match. He has additional needs, the result of having a painfully neglected start in life, but now he and his younger sister have supportive and caring new parents and sport is his thing. He was welcomed, incorporated, encouraged and instructed in the finer arts of hockey by the group on his arrival and he is a talented player now. He is wearing a shirt with ‘Ian Lewers’ on the back – the name of the GB international who gave it to him.
The bond between individual members of the GB hockey squads – men and women – remains unbreakably strong. Andy Halliday is their coach, which is quite an accolade, given that he is also the team manager of GB and England men’s hockey. His man-management skills are legendary, his dogs are very popular and he is often joined by fellow former policeman, Roger Lilleystone, who – it turns out – once played in a band alongside the Rolling Stones.
In the dugout after training, they decide to make a short Good Luck film for the GB hockey teams out in Rio. Andy films it on his iPhone. Vinnie tells the team: “Thank you for all you’ve done for us. Make us proud.” Jordan (a different Jordan) adds: “You’re like family to us.” He means it.
Back in 2012, the men’s GB team suffered a humiliating defeat by the Netherlands in the semi-finals. Almost unbearably they had to come back into public view a couple of days later and compete in the bronze medal play-off. The coach then – and FRE Flyers founder – Jason Lee wondered what on earth he could say to the team to lift them from their despair. Overnight he received an email from the Flyers. “You’re still our heroes …” it said. No mere result on a hockey pitch would ever change that. Lee could hardly read for the tears he was shedding.
Vinnie remembers sending the note. He was 13 then. He’s 17 now. Why is he still here when he lives miles out of London and has just got an apprenticeship to be an electrician? “Nice bunch of people. It’s fun. If one of us mucks up we do moan at each other, but we’re like family here. Doesn’t matter what age you are, who you are, we still bring them in. Some need a little bit of extra work, but you take time out to help them and it makes you feel better, too.
“Sometimes we come here and we’re hot-headed or not in the right frame of mind. Everyone has their own problems. I’ve been through a lot recently. Everyone here’s been through something. But here you start talking to people, you make friends and then you start trusting them. We help each other. Whatever’s going on outside in your life, this is a place where you can be happy.”
The highlight of training on this evening is goalie Bobby taking leave of his senses, marauding up the pitch and kicking the ball straight into the opposing goal. Everyone cheered.
“Is that actually allowed?” asked Helen Grant’s husband, Simon, dubiously.
“No,” said Jo.
Except here. Where the world is, demonstrably, a better place.
The FRE Flyers are imperiled. Their previous sponsorship has expired. They need £25,000 a year to survive. If you would like to help, please donate to their Virgin Money Giving page http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charities/freflyersmultisportsclub where every penny pledged goes to the charity. For more information visit www.freflyers.co.uk or email email@example.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles