Golden opportunities

As the Olympic flame departs Beijing 2008 and the world's attention shifts to London 2012, UK universities are looking forward to sharing the spotlight. Hannah Fearn reports

September 18, 2008

The athletes have gone home, the spectators have left and the Bird's Nest Stadium has been handed over to the city of Beijing. With the Olympic flame journeying to London in 2012, all eyes are now on the UK capital in the hope that the city can replicate China's success in just four years' time.

With "Team GB" enjoying its most successful Olympics for more than a century - taking home 47 medals - hopes for 2012 remain high.

But our sportsmen and women were not the only winners in Beijing. Chinese universities played a central role in the Games, hosting training camps for competitors, providing volunteers and training staff and offering use of their sporting facilities.

Eight major Olympic research centres were established in China in the run-up to the event. Now as the torch has been passed to London and the four-year Cultural Olympiad gets under way, celebrating the best in world culture in the capital, the organising committee for London 2012 is trying to bring UK universities into the fold.

The idea that universities have a clear role to play in the organisation, execution and legacy of the 2012 London Games is not a new one. Since the first draft of the bid was drawn up more than a decade ago, universities have been at the heart of the plans.

The University of East London (UEL), located right at the centre of the Olympic Village in Stratford East, helped to shape the bid. And in 2007 a report prepared by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, described the potential of the global event to benefit higher education across the UK.

"Much of the sector sees that there is enormous potential to promote areas such as widening participation, business development and knowledge transfer, cultural contributions and the contribution that higher education can make to public health," the report says.

"In this way, higher education institutions can extend existing activities and identify new areas of work that will have a life after the Games are over - providing a lasting legacy."

The report goes on to spell out exactly how they should do this: supporting elite athletes; opening up their facilities to local schools and sports teams to encourage widening participation; training volunteers and in turn contributing to the Government's skills agenda; and promoting UK higher education on the international stage.

The opportunities do not begin and end with sport. "The cultural programme for the 2012 Olympic Games should also include significant involvement of the public in higher education institution-led academic research, particularly in science," the report states.

To harness this potential, a new organisation, Podium, has been set up to broker relations between the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) and the further and higher education sectors. Podium waited patiently until events in Beijing were wrapped up before launching a publicity offensive to sign up the UK's universities.

"People are keen to know more. Until now it's been very difficult for the messages to be communicated," says Podium deputy director Gareth Smith. "I think a lot of institutions are just keen to know what opportunities there are."

Podium has a twofold role: to encourage universities to get involved with 2012 and to lobby on their behalf to ensure that they are involved. Until recently only press officers and directors of university sports centres showed interest, but the Beijing Olympics changed attitudes.

"There has been natural attention generated by the Olympics in the role (universities) have been playing in the Games," Smith says.

Universities are now talking about the possibilities for hosting conferences, training volunteers and conducting research related to the Games.

"All of those have boosted the profile of Chinese universities. I think that, in certain ways, nobody else has the natural focal opportunities that UEL has, but the rest of the opportunities, particularly for students and bidding for contracts, will spread geographically."

It was at the Beijing Games that UK universities' courting of other nations' Olympic teams began in earnest. During the event, a guide to available UK venues for pre-games training camps was circulated, naming 55 universities as potential centres.

Each successful university will host a national team of competitors for the last few weeks in the run-up to the London Games, as they make last-minute preparations.

The University of Essex was one of those named in the guide, and David Williams, its head of sport, has created a committee to steer the university in the run-up to 2012.

He says that the committee has been instrumental in setting up a local partnership of organisations campaigning to put Colchester on the map for the 2012 competitors, including the council, the local Army base, the health service and the police force.

"The Army has new facilities; we have facilities. We would be able to be a centre for any Olympic team that came to England," Williams says. "There is also a legacy in terms of potential. It may improve facilities at the institution, which would then benefit the students."

Universities also have a role in coaching and teaching Olympic athletes. By the time London hosts the Games in 2012, it is estimated that 85 per cent of the British team will be made up of students and graduates. The University of Bath has a history of supporting elite athletes. Since 1992, it has been running a programme for its elite student athletes in 16 sports and sent Olympians to the Games.

"We're very excited about what's happened in Beijing and what's going to happen over the next four years," says Ged Roddy, Bath's director of sport. "The higher education sector has got a huge responsibility to make sure that it is providing fit-for-purpose environments for young athletes."

As a recognised centre for sport, Loughborough University saw more than 50 students and graduates compete in Beijing, and it expects to better that number significantly when the UK selects its 2012 team. Loughborough promises to hothouse its most promising athletes over the next four years.

"They are our priority," says Chris Earle, Loughborough's director of sport. "We're able to offer that really intensive level of sport training. We spent a lot of time with them (the university's Beijing competitors), providing lifestyle managers and education tutors."

Although the possibilities of Olympic involvement are seemingly limitless and may prove enviably profitable, a report by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published in March suggests that universities have to move quickly to get in on the Olympic action.

Analysing the impact of the Sydney 2000 Games on higher education, the report finds that the Australian universities that did accrue the most benefit from the Games had a number of factors in common.

They started the planning process early, had a dedicated pot of money for Olympic activities, provided staff and students as Olympic volunteers and adapted academic programmes to coincide with the event. They undertook research related to the Games and publicised their involvement.

"The key learning point from the Sydney Olympics is that co-ordination is crucial," the PwC report concludes. "Sydney's higher education sector was not perceived as playing a major role in the Sydney Olympics. This was in part due to a lack of planning around optimising publicity opportunities."

Back in the UK, universities appear to have heeded the findings and institutions far from London are already beginning to get involved.

Dan Lewis, Durham University's deputy director of sport, says the institution is working with other universities in the North East to offer almost 20 sites across the region for pre-Games training camps. Lewis is very aware of the profile-raising opportunities for the university and will fight to be involved.

"There will be places in France and Germany that are closer to London than we are. I think it will help in terms of recruitment of students if you're able to say that your facilities were used to host a team. It's a great opportunity and will raise the profile of sport and hopefully improve the sporting infrastructure across the whole country."

The University of Bristol is already working with Kenya's Olympic team. For Bob Reeves, Bristol's director of sport, exercise and health, the opportunity must be about more than the basic provision of sporting facilities to make it worthwhile for the athletes.

"If it was just a matter of the training camp I wouldn't even be interested," Reeves says. But Bristol is doing much more: it is helping to link schools in Bristol and Kenya, and fostering partnerships between sports schools in the city and the national sporting bodies in Africa. It will launch student exchanges between the two countries and investigate the potential for other commercial and cultural opportunities.

"The legacy will be that a lot of this will continue beyond 2012. We're going to get lots of schools twinned with schools in Kenya," Reeves says.

"If you do have any legacy, it's going to be something that is of personal or cultural benefit. I can't think of any better potential for all of that than what we're doing."

The opportunities do not end there. Institutions across the UK are battling it out to win contracts to support the Games by providing their skills and expertise.

The University of Dundee has recently had its scientific laboratories accredited by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, and hopes that its laboratories will be used for physiological testing and monitoring before the Games.

King's College London is home to the only World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratory in the UK, and looks to lead on anti-doping measures and tests throughout the Games.

Sheffield Hallam University has launched an MA in sports journalism, of which a course in Olympic studies will be a part. The university sent 24 media students to the Beijing Games to work in the press office of the Beijing organisers.

More than 100 students applied for the coveted posts that allowed them to work on site as "flash-quote reporters", getting the first comments from competitors after their events, with their words then fed to the world's media.

"We hope that we will be able to pass on the lessons that we have learnt in Beijing to the London organisers in 2012," says Phil Andrews, senior lecturer in journalism and a sports writer for The Independent.

"We will be sending them to various organisations to talk about what they have been doing and what they have learnt. In the coming four years we'll be offering what advice we can, but we will also be sending student volunteers from our university to work in the press office in London. Our undergraduates, over the next four years, will be learning from the students who have already been to Beijing."

At the centre of preparations for the London Games, the onus is on UEL to take higher education's lead role in 2012. But despite its involvement since the inception of London's bid, it must still fight for its place. Knowledge transfer will also be a major part of its work, as it makes sure the lessons learnt in Beijing are applied in London. Most of all, the university intends to put the city, and especially the east of the city, on the map for potential students.

"London is still moving east and the Olympics will really accelerate that process," says Andrew Blake, associate dean of UEL's School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies. "On an institutional level it will be huge. There will be an increasing pool of local students."

"The Olympic benefits will be in terms of putting London on the map, and in particular our part of London," Professor Blake adds. "The sector is so competitive right now it's going to have a real benefit in terms of putting us in the spotlight and showing what we can offer international students."

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