New calls for new balls

September 22, 2000

Figures show that competitive sports are attracting more students than ever. And the growth is not just in the traditional team sports - there's been an explosion in minority and women's sports too, says Jennifer Currie

James Trubridge was a keen basketball player when he arrived for his first term at Nottingham University, but he was immediately put off because of what he describes as "the prove yourself attitude" adopted by the bigger university teams.

"It was as I was leaving the freshers' fair that I walked into these three lads sitting on the floor trying to get people to join their korfball club," he recalls. "So I did and last year I was made captain of the Great Britain student korfball squad."

Invented in 1901 by a Dutch schoolteacher, korfball is a cross between netball and basketball and is said to be the only mixed team sport that ensures that men and women can compete on an equal footing.

"Students like korfball so much because it combines all that is good about being a student. During the week, we have a lighthearted training session followed by a few beers down the pub, but it is the weekends that korfballers live for, where we travel around the country and abroad to take part in tournaments. The korfball social life is something else," he adds.

Now the competition in Britain is heating up, with 16 universities regularly fielding teams.

But, as Mr Trubridge admits, better established sports will always overshadow the development of new or alternative university ones.

"We will never be able to overtake traditional sports such as rugby and football because we do not have enough money. Once people try a new sport such as korfball, they tend to stick with it, but it is sometimes a struggle to fill places."

This year's participation figures from the British Universities Sports Association show that competitive sports are attracting more students than ever. But according to Jim Ellis, Busa's sports administration manager, student sport is expanding outside its traditional boundaries.

"About 80,000 students compete in Busa's championships every year, but we estimate that there are approximately 350,000 students out there who take part in some form of sport, whether it is aerobics or sub aqua. In fact, it is often the mountaineering club that has the most members," he adds.

There are a number of sports associations, including mountaineering, that recruit the majority of their members from the student population.

But Alex Ross, assistant secretary general of the British Orienteering Association, says the number of university orienteering clubs has started to decrease in recent years.

"Part of the BOA's strategic plan is to increase the number of student members, but we are unsure how to do this. While we have been successful in some places, there are so many other things available to that age group when they leave home for the first time that they just don't take up any sport."

While Busa hopes to be able to add sports such as ultimate Frisbee and American football to its repertoire in the near future, it readily acknowledges that the face of student sport has and is still changing.

But Nathan Homer, Busa's student vice-chair, believes that universities are the breeding grounds for small-scale sports.

"The media reflects the kinds of sports that it thinks are important, and this influences a lot of choices and can mean in turn that small-scale sports do not get publicity. Britain's most popular sport is fishing, but you would never be able to tell that from the media coverage it gets.

"But universities are a place to go to try new things and can provide you with your only real chance to experiment after school."

Despite rising levels of obesity and fears that sedentary lifestyles are taking their toll on the nation's health, the student population seems to be quite a healthy bunch on the whole. The inclusion of health and fitness in the school curriculum coupled with the work of the Health Education Authority has evidently had a significant impact.

Peter Bilsborough, deputy head of sports studies at Stirling University, agrees with that assessment. "Team sports will always be popular with some people, but the majority seem to enjoy health-related activities such as aerobics.

"Students are taking a much greater interest in their health today, and this is something that has developed over the past ten or 15 years. There are thriving gym cultures in universities across the country, and any university worth its salt should provide the best facilities it can, including wacky sports."

Yet perhaps the greatest growth area in minority student sport has been in women's sport, which has exploded in all directions. The popularity of Glasgow University's muscle tone and popmobility exercise classes has doubled the number of sessions.

There were 99 women's university rugby union teams entered in this year's Busa championships, compared with 265 men's teams. Women's cricket is also increasing in popularity, fielding a respectable 43 female teams compared with 171 male ones.

"If you had spoken to me three years ago, I would not have thought that the number of women's rugby teams would have grown from 30 to nearly 100," says Mr Ellis.

"We now have to run a major competition for women's 2nd XI teams as well. It is clear that there is a lot more depth and direction to the women's game. Rather than having to cobble together 15 players on a Wednesday afternoon, there is now real competition for places."

An added incentive is that the final of the Busa rugby competition for both men and women is played at Twickenham, an honour that England's national female squad has not yet been granted.

While it seems clear that well-established sports such as rugby, hockey and football are not going to go away, students today seem more inclined to take their health into their own hands.

Mr Homer said: "Even the fashion industry likes sport at the moment. Although a lot of people claim to have been put off sport at school, people come to university to be active again."

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