Degrees of success

September 22, 2000

The British have not fared well in the sporting arena of late. So can a new interest in sport at universities really herald a golden age for British athletes? Elaine Carlton met an Olympic gold medallist who thinks it can

The UK crashed out of the European football championship, got nowhere at Wimbledon and is short of Olympic medals, but long jump gold medallist Lynn Davies is more optimistic than ever about the future of British sport.

Despite the UK's dismal past performance, Mr Davies believes that universities are leading the way to a future of British sporting success. He says they are committed to a fresh, systematic approach of fostering our talented athletes.

"Universities have in the past been unsympathetic to sporting excellence, but now they have become far more supportive. Some are becoming centres of excellence for sporting talent," he says.

Mr Davies, who won the gold medal for the long jump at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is now a senior lecturer in sport and physical education at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. In the 40 years since he left university, both the facilities and the attitude towards sportsmen and women have been transformed.

"Many universities now have excellent sporting facilities, scholarship schemes, coaches from the local area and course flexibility for those combining sport and study," he says. "Universities have realised that sport is a good way to promote their university. Since higher education is very competitive now, providing the right facilities could make the difference between a student coming to UWIC or going to Loughborough."

Lottery money is behind the new facilities that universities can offer students. UWIC is basking in a Pounds 5.5 million lottery award, which has been put towards a new Pounds 7 million athletics track at the university. "Now we will be able to attract young athletes and sporting talent who may not have gone to university otherwise," Mr Davies says.

UWIC is among a small number of universities that offer scholarships to help students establish a sporting career. These talented sportsmen and women are given Pounds 1,500 a year. In return, they have to spend eight hours a week practising their chosen sport. Their courses are modular, and the timetable is flexible to allow them the opportunity to practise athletics or swimming.

"The United States has the best scenario because students have four years at university with all the facilities provided and everything paid for. Our new scholarships are not an enormous amount of money, but it is definitely a help," Mr Davies says.

Mr Davies is a firm believer that would-be Olympic winners should get a degree. "The tendency among young athletes is to think you are going to become a millionaire. But to do that you have to be dedicated, committed, good and lucky. By the time you get to 21 or 22, if you have devoted your whole life to sport you can be on the scrap heap.

"I think it is a superb balance to train and study. If you are a full-time athlete there is a temptation to train too hard and then you could damage yourself or get bored. Working and being a sportsman is far harder because it is hard to get the enthusiasm to train in the evening."

Mr Davies believes that higher education and sports training now form the perfect symbiotic relationship. When he started university in the 1960s, there was only one degree on offer to young athletes wanting to pursue both their sporting and their academic development, so he had little choice but to become a physical education teacher.

Since then, Mr Davies has watched the academic landscape of sport studies change beyond all recognition. Today, students can take their pick from an overwhelming choice of sports-related careers, ranging from recreational management to sports promotion, from physiotherapy to coaching or commentating.

"The leisure industry has become the fifth largest in the country, and this has led to a huge increase in the number of sports-related careers.

"Everyone is interested in health and fitness, and people are more aware of the value of sport in their lives. It gives people a sense of purpose and leads to social integration. Even the government has realised what sport can do for disadvantaged people."

The arrival of sport in the national consciousness is credited to the explosion in leisure centres and health clubs over the past 30 years. This, in turn, has had a great effect on university courses.

UWIC offers BSc Hons in sports coaching, sports development, sports and physical education, and sports and exercise science. "I would advise a prospective student to follow their interest, whether it be engineering or chemistry, but I do think that there is an advantage for athletes who study sport. To be a good sprinter you don't really need to know about sprinting, but it helps to understand muscle structure and psychology as this allows you to analyse your performance."

Sport has finally become a respectable subject on the university curriculum alongside the likes of chemistry and business studies, according to Mr Davies. "Physical education has always struggled alongside academic subjects, but now it has come into its own. It really is on a par with any other degree."

Mr Davies believes that universities are heading in the right direction in their bid to produce top sportsmen and women. But they need to do more. "They need to involve the top coaches with the most talented people. They need to increase flexibility within degree courses, and there has to be a certain amount of usage of the facilities by only the most promising rather than the whole community.

"The 1980s was a brilliant decade for Britain, with Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett representing us. But at the end of that era, the British Athletic Federation became insolvent, and we lost all our top names. Now, however, we have realised that for young athletes to develop, they need to be given money for coaching and training, and it looks as though there are some good new athletes coming through again."

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