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September 22, 2000

Has campus sport turned into an elitist race for cash and a desperate exercise in profile-raising, or does the ideal of sport for all prevail? Alison Utley finds out

University sport is suffering from an identity crisis that some believe is threatening its existence.

No longer perceived as a core activity, it has been marginalised to such an extent that directors of campus sport are becoming increasingly desperate and pursuing a "naive and ill-fated philosophy", says Richard Cox, director of sport at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

Cox is critical of the commercially driven tactics being adopted throughout the country. "The hype surrounding sport means that its core values have been lost," he says. "Some institutions regard sport merely as a way of raising their profile and attracting elite students. They blatantly exploit their connections, promoting talented athletes who are not students but part of a squad that trains on their facilities."

Those managing campus sport have lost touch with its grass roots, he believes, trying instead to be everybody's friend in a bid to secure funding.

"I have seen fellow directors jumping on one bandwagon or another to try to justify their role and impress their paymasters.

"They have lost their direction, perceiving themselves one minute as fitness managers or coaches of elite athletes, the next as commercially oriented managers of sports facilities. Even those who have managed to drag along their vice-chancellor to finals matches - appealing to a notion of being 'one of the boys' - have not got the long-term sustainable status and financial support they have sought."

Attempts to gain credibility have become ever more desperate, Cox says, as academic research strengthens its grip on campus finances and directors of sport grasp for what little lottery money is available.

"This lack of focus is counter-productive. It is leading to an increasingly diverse agenda for sport in higher education, so it is no wonder that Sport England and governing bodies of sport feel unable to relate to the sector as a united front."

Jim Parry, dean for students at Leeds University, feels the same. "In some places, particularly where sport scholarships are the norm, it is profile-raising that is all important. The idea that universities offer recreational services to students is diminishing."

Dr Parry, a specialist in the philosophy of sport, says the distinction between the academic study of sport and sport as a welfare provision for students is being blurred, mirroring a shift in the Olympic movement. "Everyone tends to think the Olympic Games are about elite sport, but Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the Olympic movement, saw its purpose as promoting the educational value of sport."

Peter Warburton, director of sport at Durham University, sees the emphasis on income for sports departments in a more positive light.

"We need to promote excellence in university sport because that is the only way we can attract funds," he says.

"That doesn't mean our core values are being lost. The more money we can bring in, the more we can spend on raising the quality of the facilities we offer to all students."

At Durham, his job is made easier by the fact that up to 95 per cent of students regularly participate in college sports - but, he stresses, the university has not had access to the lottery cash other institutions have tapped into.

"We are far too inward-looking as a sector," he says, "and we simply cannot work in isolation any more.

"The days when university directors of sport could sit back and not expect to have to earn a living are long gone."

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