Given a sporting chance

March 31, 2000

College sport is flourishing, but university cliques are excluding women, overseas and disabled athletes. Jennifer Currie reports on the fight against sporting discrimination (right) and on how Britain's Olympic hopefuls combine study and training (below)

It is a tough life if you are an Olympic hopeful. Particularly if you have to juggle the demands of an academic career while trying to improve your personal best. But thanks to increasingly flexible degrees, more students are able to take up offers from Team GB, safe in the knowledge that they can put their studies on temporary hold.

"For someone in full flight during an Olympic year, the pressures can be very difficult," says Margaret Talbot, head of sport at Leeds Metropolitan University. "Part-time provision is much better today and there are more portable credit courses available. It all helps the students pursue their sporting careers."

In fact, universities are fast becoming a favourite recruiting ground for selectors. National swimming and athletic events for disabled athletes aged 18-21 act as a springboard to the GB ParaOlympic squad.

"British universities are getting better at recognising the constant demands a professional athlete's training schedule can make," says Richard Simmons, officer for the British Olympic Association. "There will always be cases where people can't really pull the whole thing together, but that is less common today."

For Julie Douglas, 19, a first year PE and sports science student at Loughborough University, her swimming career took off when she started her degree. "The training here is completely different from what I was used to at home," says Douglas, a likely member of Ireland's Olympic swimming squad. "We basically live on site and are here because we want to be. When I arrived I was lacking in motivation, but the atmosphere here is really positive. Living and training in a team situation really helps."

On top of 15 hours of lectures and tutorials a week comes 16 hours of training - ten in the pool and six in the gym. With late-night and early-morning training sessions five days a week, socialising and study often have to take second place.

"I like to go to the cinema on my nights off. I wised up to drinking a while ago as I could really feel it when I got back in the pool after a week off at Christmas, so I don't drink now," Douglas says.

Her coach, Ben Titley, agrees that students with sporting alter egos have to get their priorities right - even if it is only temporarily. "Their studies have to take a bit more of a back seat. There is no point putting all this effort into something if it is going to be half-hearted," he says.

Advisory bodies such as Ace UK (Athlete Career and Education) have been created to help students find the balance between their long and short-term goals. Rod Thorpe, director of Loughborough University's sports development centre, says such bodies are both helpful and necessary. "It does university sport no good if performers fail both athletically and academically because of conflicts between the two. A sport that does not take responsibility for the total development of its performers will soon lose credence with parents and the performers."

Because sport is such a "risky career", as Thorpe describes it, students should consider all the alternatives before attempting to juggle a degree with a world-class training schedule. High-flying students at Loughborough are able to take "Olympic years out" to hone their performances in time for selection. Thorpe hopes more universities will follow suit.

"For many bright people, an academic challenge can be an excellent distraction from what can be the tedium of training, but we have to recognise that the demands of world-class sport are high. At Loughborough, we have coaching and training support to hand, but even so we have to help our students arrive at sensible decisions about how best to achieve their aspirations in sport and academia."

Despite her hectic schedule and minimal social life, Douglas is relishing the challenges. "Coming to university has been difficult as I have also had to learn to do my own cooking and washing along with everything else," she says. "But I seem to be doing quite well just now, and I am enjoying every minute of it."

TIM BRADBINTS, 23,fourth-year medicalstudent at Nottingham University and sprint canoeist "Competing in the Olympics has been a dream for a long time. I have always wanted to be a doctor as well, and I think I'll find it hard if I have to choose between them. I suppose my dream job would be as a doctor for a canoe team.

Sprint canoeing is a bit like athletics on water. My university does not have a sprint canoe club, so I have stayed in touch with my local club and I compete for it occasionally.

I train on water twice a day, five days a week. I get up at 5.30am and am out of the water by 8am. It is worse in the winter when I have to train in the dark. I do a couple of weight-training sessions a week and go out running as well.

I had full-time lectures from first to third year, but as this is an Olympic year, the university has let me complete my fourth year over two years. I study for three months and then train for three months, which makes it easier when I have blocks of clinical ward work. I trained in South Africa for three months over Christmas, which was fantastic. I was funded by SportsAid, a charity for young people starting out in sport.

I don't think I am at a disadvantage because I am a student competing against full-time professionals. I can't have late nights if I'm training in the morning, and I know a lot of people think I am crazy for trying to do the two things at once. But I have no regrets."

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