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Huw Edwards

Remember when there was mass hostility about London hosting the 2012 Olympics? Huw Edwards, CEO of UK Active, was there. He talks to Kath Hudson about the lessons he learned

Published in Health Club Management 2024 issue 2
Edwards (left) interviews sports minister Stuart Andrew on stage at the Active Uprising conference 2024 / photo: carmen valino
Edwards (left) interviews sports minister Stuart Andrew on stage at the Active Uprising conference 2024/ photo: carmen valino

With the exception of the pandemic, the toughest part of my career – and an experience I wouldn’t swap for the world – was my time spent working for the London 2012 Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). I led the organisation’s political and business engagement from 2006 to 2012, first as government and business relations manager, and then as the head of dignitary and ministerial management for the government’s Olympic Executive under the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Having worked previously in the Mayor’s Office for the Greater London Authority, it was a fantastic opportunity to really challenge myself in that political landscape. For us as a team it was a hugely challenging proposition: taking on a project of unparalleled size, which had a hard deadline, against a backdrop of collective distrust and even hostility.

When we first went to the site it was hard to conceive that such a highly contaminated, barren wasteland could be transformed into a vibrant Olympic Park, however, the government had assembled a team of world-class individuals, who had clarity of approach about what they were going to deliver and how they were going to get there. On a day-to-day basis I was absorbing all this incredible knowledge, experience and expertise from those who were working above me.

The first 12 to 18 months were the most difficult. Everyone felt on the back foot, because of changes to budgets and the lack of confidence externally. As most of that time was spent clearing and decontaminating the site it was hard to show progress to stakeholders and the media. We could never take our eye off the ball, but it did make us very resilient.

The end of the beginning
The turning point came in spring 2008 when the construction of the Olympic Stadium began and we could show people we were making progress, were ahead of schedule and on track to deliver. The whole perception of the Games changed overnight.

Being part of that team taught me hugely invaluable life lessons. There were so many learnings from six years of working with world-class people, who were consummate professionals in delivery and leadership, such as clear communication, being strategic about setting milestones and delivering on them, as well as getting stakeholder engagement.

I’ve endeavoured to apply those lessons to my role at UK Active, where we have a responsibility to provide strong leadership for the sector, making these areas crucial for success. These lessons have proven to be invaluable in helping me to guide the team and our members as we navigated the major national challenges posed by both the pandemic and the energy crisis, as well as our strategic growth more generally. Stakeholder engagement and collaboration have been crucial at every step of this journey and at the end of the day it’s all about building relationships and trust.

My experience with the Olympics taught me how to build a team of people who have clarity about what needs to be delivered and how everybody in the team needs to understand the part they play when going on that journey. If you have a brilliant team of people who are completely committed to supporting each other to get to that destination, you've got a chance.

Perspective is another thing I learned. When you’re dealing with what seems to be a crisis the first thing is to work out whether or not it's actually a crisis, because the majority of the time it’s not. More often than not there's a solution. Just keep learning from mistakes, learning from life and moving forward.

Standout moments
There were so many stand-out moments from that time. The late Queen coming to the park and planting the first tree, so many state visits, including the Chilean president – about two or three weeks after the Chilean miners were rescued. He brought us gifts of gravel from the mine, which was a surreal experience.

I was back at the office helping to coordinate operations from HQ on ‘Super Saturday’, but I had the opportunity to go to the incredible environment of the velodrome and watched the closing ceremony with Damian Lewis, which was brilliant to witness, as the conclusion of such a successful and inspiring sporting event.

I believe the London 2012 Olympics was a celebration of the very best of the UK. That’s how I felt when I watched Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony.

I know what good looks like when we achieve government engagement – how to take the government on the journey, show them what’s possible and really sell the vision. It’s about understanding their motivations and challenges and then helping to present the solutions and strategies for them to invest in. I know how to succeed and how to create the environments for change.

It was humbling and an honour to be involved in helping to deliver such a significant international event at that time.

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