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Can East London Keep The Olympic Spirit Burning?


Let's now turn to look at the fortunes of another neighborhood, this one across the pond in East London. The Olympic flame went dark last night. The past two weeks of the summer games seemed to win over any and all skeptics, including even some skeptical Brits.

London's 2012 chair, former Olympian Lord Sebastian Coe, said recently in a Time magazine video that there were initially serious doubts that the Olympics could revitalize the long depressed, ethnically mixed neighborhoods in East London where they took place.

SEBASTIAN COE: Standing with the IOC on a pretty desolate, contaminated, poisoned, underdeveloped, economically challenged 600 acres of East London and trying to explain that, actually, within seven years, we would have 3,000 homes, a school, a hospital, work class venues was probably stretching the imagination to about its break point.

LYDEN: London's organization committee had always argued that the games would bring positive changes and also inspiration for British young people, so we wanted to find out how the youth of East London - the neighborhood you just heard about - felt about this.

We've called on two people who helped carry the Olympic torch ahead of the games and they are Rumi Begum. She's a 21-year-old student who runs a sports club for youth in East London. Hello there, Rumi.


LYDEN: And Amber Charles. She's a 22-year-old student and basketball player from a different East London neighborhood. She was also a member of a youth delegation who helped to win over the Olympic bid for London seven years ago. Hello there, Amber.


LYDEN: Well, we're so happy that both of you could be with us. Amber, let me start with you. You just heard Sebastian Coe's description of East London, you know, poisoned neighborhoods, basically, he was saying, economically challenged. What about that? What's the reality today? Did things turn around?

CHARLES: I think the area's got a lot more pumped into it. I mean, we have a lot more resources now, like to help out with stuff and I wouldn't go as far as to say we were a poisoned neighborhood, but - yeah - there was challenges faced, obviously, money-wise, so the Olympics, so far, has put a lot more into it, so that's great.

LYDEN: Well, give me a specific. What do you see now you didn't see eight years ago?

CHARLES: There's a lot more. The buildings have been improved on and buildings before that were maybe desolate and not being used. Have now been, like, made to look like brand new and are now being used and there's a lot more sporting facilities being popped up. Even the ones that are there have been refurbished and the new ones, so it's all around good experience, really.

LYDEN: Rumi, what are you seeing? You work with young people in your program. Was there excitement or was it any sense of resentment that the development was coming in where it hadn't been before?

BEGUM: I think the early changes where the Olympics have effected most is probably the motivation in children and in the community itself and, you know, that's a start, I guess.

LYDEN: Let's talk about getting into the events. I mean, what did the young people have to say? Amber, you benefited from this program that actually gave people some VIP seats. Explain what that was like.

CHARLES: It was an amazing experience to be so close. I mean, we could literally, like, touch the players that were there and, when you go into it, you don't know what sport you're going to get on the actual day you go in and then they tell you you're going to this, you're going to that. And we ended up going to handball and hockey, which I...

LYDEN: Handball?

CHARLES: Yeah. Which, to me, before the Olympics, was a foreign game. I'd never heard of it, but when we actually got in there, it was really fun. There's a lot of kids who are like, I don't know what's going on, but it looks really fun and like, I wonder if there's any handball teams around to - I think that whole scheme has really inspired a lot of kids and have showed them new things that they haven't seen before and new sports they might want to try and pick up.

LYDEN: Cool. Rumi, what about you? I understand that, although, you know, of course, you carried the torch, you couldn't get in to any of the games. Is that accurate?

BEGUM: Yeah. I mean, the organization I volunteer with - we didn't get any tickets ourselves, so I just tried applying for tickets online like everyone else. I'd just gotten lucky, I guess, but you know, some of the school kids I've worked with before and have spoken to - they went with their schools, which I'm jealous to admit.

LYDEN: And how about the kids in your program? How did they feel?

BEGUM: I mean, they will, luckily, get the opportunity to try out the different sports that, you know, people aren't as familiar with, you know, like, you know, handball, Lacrosse and, thus, some of the sports that I coach with them. So seeing them being able to watch it on TV on a national level, it really inspires them. They're like, oh, you know, I know how to play that sport and I'm really good at it. I can do it in the Olympics. It's kind of cool, actually.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking about the Olympic Games and the legacy for youth in East London with two of its young, very sporty residents. Just heard Amber Charles and Rumi Begum.

Rumi, over 30 percent of the population in your neighborhood share Bengali heritage, people from Bangladesh, including your own family, and this is Ramadan.

BEGUM: Yeah.

LYDEN: Can you tell us a little bit more about the connection between Bengali people and sport?

BEGUM: I mean, in my community in general, it's always been something that we don't really think about, especially when it stereotypically is not something that girls get involved with. But that's something that I, myself, want to change. The Olympics has really been able to sort of change views about how it's not - the stereotypes you get about academic careers, going into sort of finance and law and things like that. There's sport, as well, and it's an amazing career to get into and get involved with.

LYDEN: Amber, are there any athletes in these games who've caught kids' attention because they might come from some other backgrounds?

CHARLES: I mean, obviously, Mo Farah, the 10,000, 5,000 meter runner. He was a big inspiration to a lot of people. Also, Jessica Ennis, the heptathlete. Obviously, she's the poster girl and everyone loves her and, also, she is from that mixed heritage background, so I think she appeals to a lot of people, like, in my area, as well.

You got some basketball players like Luol Deng. He grew up here in Brixton, but I think Jessica Ennis is a big poster for a lot of girls trying to compete.

LYDEN: Rumi, let me ask you about being involved in sport as a young person in the UK. The UK is going through historic austerity, the worst since World War II. What effect is that having?

BEGUM: It was a massive change when losing funding. The organization I work with - we started off being the school's sports partnership. We were - you know, we were majorly government funded and we've lost all our funding now, so we've had to cut back on so many things and it's been, obviously, really hard, but if it's something that you're passionate about and something you want to keep going, then you know, you'd find a means to it, I guess.

LYDEN: Amber, were you able to play basketball in London as a younger - even younger person?

CHARLES: I was quite lucky in the family I was born into, I guess. My mom's a basketball coach and I've just grown up around basketball. It's easy if you know where to go. Before the Olympics and, like, this big push for sport, it wasn't that widely publicized, like, where sports were and where you could go and where you could play and especially for girls.

But I think now it's got a little bit better. I mean, they're really trying to push these sports and let kids know where they are, but like I said, my mom knew where all the sports were going on, like athletics and basketball and swimming and all of that, so I've been playing since I was really young.

LYDEN: What do you think the legacy of the games are going to be for East London, Amber?

CHARLES: I think it makes their dreams a little bit more reachable for them because they've seen it. It's in their backyard. I mean, you can wander through Stratford and meet Olympic athletes that are just wandering around, going shopping or just walking. It makes their dreams seem a lot more reality to kids that are from an area that necessarily wouldn't have even dreamed of going to the Olympics before.

LYDEN: So you both got to carry the Olympic torch. I just have to know what that was like. Amber?

CHARLES: It was an amazing experience, very humbling and I just felt really honored, really. I mean, obviously, being at the start of the Olympics when it all first kicked off and then now, being at the end of it, I think it was just an amazing experience for me and I'll never forget it.

LYDEN: And, Rumi, I think I saw you on TV. What was that like carrying the torch?

BEGUM: It was crazy, too, and it's like having the local people and the local community just come out and treat you like a star and completely mob you just to take pictures with you, throwing their babies at you and everything. It was just absolutely amazing and I felt so honored and so privileged to be able to even carry the torch.

LYDEN: Rumi Begum is a youth sports leader and Amber Charles is a youth basketball player in East London and they were kind enough to join us from the BBC studio in London. It's been a great pleasure, ladies. Thank you and good luck.

BEGUM: Thank you.

CHARLES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.