Sharing the podium

As UK universities welcome the world's elite athletes ahead of the London Games, hopes are high for a golden legacy of swifter innovation, higher-quality facilities and a stronger profile. Jack Grove reports

July 19, 2012

The Olympics represent the pinnacle of many an elite athlete's career, and preparations for the London 2012 Games are being taken extremely seriously. So much so, in fact, that many details remain a closely guarded secret even to the universities hosting teams of athletes this summer.

"I'm not allowed to know half of what's going to happen," admits David Cosford, director of sport at the University of East London, as the institution's Docklands campus is transformed into a bustling centre of Olympic activity around him, ready for the arrival of some of the world's most famous sport stars.

UEL is playing host to Team USA, and more than 1,000 competitors, coaches, medical staff and journalists will be based at the university throughout July and August, with activity centred on the university's new £21 million SportsDock centre. Cosford's team has been planning the visit for the past four years.

"It's going to be all hands to the pump. Last year we sent a team to observe the Pan-American Games in Mexico and learn how universities there were involved.

"It was a 24-7 thing. Some organisers weren't sleeping for two or three days.

Some competitors at the London Games, he adds, "will have whole entourages, bodyguards and security".

The presence of the US Olympic squad has helped UEL to pull in extra external money from charities and sports councils to expand its sports centre, while Team USA paid £100,000 to install a room designed for professional athletes that is loaded to the rafters with free weights.

The team also negotiated a 50 per cent discount on treadmills and fitness machines, which will be used by staff, students and the local community after the Olympic athletes have left.

But the real legacy from the brief visit will lie not in the new facilities but in the institution's raised profile, insists Cosford, who is keen to use the unique opportunity to burnish UEL's reputation as a sports-focused university.

"People using the gym probably won't realise that Michael Phelps [with 14 Olympic swimming gold medals to his name] may have been ripping those weights above their head.

"If we can get a picture of that and communicate it to students and our customers, it will be amazing," he says.

Inevitably, much of the attention will be focused on the men's basketball team - commonly known as the Dream Team - which will be training at the SportsDock during the Olympics.

Security will be extremely tight as these National Basketball Association superstars set foot on British soil as a team for the first time.

While ensuring that the basketball stars' privacy and training needs are respected, Cosford hopes that local teenagers from nearby housing estates will be able to watch the likes of LeBron James - whose earnings top $950,000 (£606,000) a week, according to the 2012 Forbes Rich List - and five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant train on campus.

"If some of these youngsters can come and watch these athletes in action, it could change their lives," Cosford says, by inspiring them to follow in their footsteps.

Olympic and Paralympic teams are based at 35 universities around the UK, living in student rooms and training ahead of the Games, which begin when the Olympic torchbearer lights the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium in East London on July during the £ million opening ceremony.

Although most teams are clustered around London, athletes are also staying at institutions much further away: Cameroon's training camp, for example, is at Robert Gordon University in Scotland.

These universities, too, hope that the much-discussed Olympic legacy will not reside solely in wonderful memories of their overseas visitors and their part in a glorious sporting summer.

Hosting more than 300 South Korean athletes at Brunel University's Uxbridge campus will provide an opportunity to showcase the institution to thousands of young Koreans considering overseas study, says Ian Campbell, the university's pro vice-chancellor for external relations.

"It has allowed us to develop international links with Korea," he explains.

"We hope there will be a lasting legacy from the Olympics through the international partnerships we've established."

Like UEL, the University of Birmingham will be under the spotlight as it hosts the Jamaican track and field team, as well as Team USA's sprinters, who will train at nearby Alexander Stadium, home of the renowned Birchfield Harriers.

With the Olympic 100m champion and world record holder Usain Bolt, world 100m champion Yohan Blake and former world record holder Asafa Powell on campus, media attention will be substantial. Birmingham is keen to use the occasion as an opportunity to reach out to schoolchildren, including those from the area's large Caribbean community, who are eager to see the sport's top names.

But not all universities can expect to host a major team such as the US or Jamaica, with all the surrounding media circus and celebrity razzmatazz; some teams are tiny. The Pacific island of Vanuatu, with a population of just 258,000, is sending just two table tennis players, two athletes and a judo competitor to the London Games. They will be based at Manchester Metropolitan University, which is also hosting pre-Games training camps for other Pacific Island teams and Brazil's Paralympic team before the athletes decamp to the Olympic village in London.

At the other end of the scale, most of China's massive squad will be based at Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Leeds.

Of course, the arrival of thousands of athletes and support staff this summer is not necessarily good news from everyone's point of view; it will cause disruption on many campuses over the summer.

UEL's main library will become a temporary media centre during the Olympics and Paralympics, for example, while many athletes are likely to be on site in the busy period when clearing for 2012 opens on 16 August.

But Brunel's Campbell insists that the activities will not be a problem for staff, thanks to plans already put in place, and he believes staff and students will revel in the atmosphere.

"There will be a real buzz about the place. It's been four years in the planning and every support service area is catered for. Everyone is feeling comfortable."

Beyond the campus training camps and international links, the organisers of London 2012 say the Olympics and Paralympics will help to stimulate new areas of academic research.

Research projects have already sprung up around the Olympics and dozens of public lectures, talks and symposia have been planned around the Games.

With sports courses now offered at almost half of the UK's universities, sports science is no longer a niche interest in higher education; it plays an important role within the academy.

Bryce Dyer, senior lecturer in product design at Bournemouth University, has been working with Irish Paralympic athlete Colin Lynch to design a new prosthetic leg for this summer's competition.

"We took the model of a traditional prosthetic limb and threw it away, starting with a blank canvas," he explains.

"When amputees lose a limb, they tend to replace it with what they lost. But with athletes you need to consider prosthetic limbs as a piece of equipment.

"We made one out of carbon fibre, thinking about aerodynamics and power transfer."

The limb has already helped the double Paracycling world champion to smash his personal best ahead of the London Games.

Such innovations in sports technology could also be transferred to other applications, argues Dyer.

"I hope this will [encourage] other prosthetic experts to take a lateral approach to design and come up with new ideas," he says.

"Many innovations from elite sport have filtered down into everyday uses. For instance, ABS [anti-lock braking system] came from the world of Formula One racing.

"When money is no object and all that matters is winning, as in sport, you see big changes in technology.

"A lot of prosthesis design has been linked to the Paralympics. Some changes might mean helping soldiers return to combat after losing a limb."

He believes this summer's Olympics will be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate some of the exciting technological research coming from UK universities.

"Projects like this will showcase the expertise we have in this country," he says.

"It's a great moment to showcase British engineering at its best - something we desperately need to do at the moment."

Research at Canterbury Christ Church University into the classification of disabled athletes at the Paralympics was awarded a gold medal by Podium, a government-funded body set up to promote university engagement with the Olympics, at an award ceremony in May.

Other outstanding studies given top prizes at these awards include research into elite sporting performance at Liverpool John Moores University and Sheffield Hallam University.

A further legacy of the 2012 Games, some have predicted, could be a surge in interest in sport at universities, given that many of Team GB's competitors are students.

Among them will be UEL postgraduate Sophie Cox, who will represent Great Britain in judo.

"Having current students competing at the Olympics is useful when attracting other elite athletes," says Elizabeth Egan, high performance sports manager at UEL.

"They will tell their peers about how they have combined training with study, and they may think about coming to study here.

"Having these competitors is also very inspiring for other students. It is fantastic to have role models like Sophie at the university."

From Olympic sprints to scholarship's long game

At the Rome Olympics in 1960, sprinter Peter Radford was one of Britain's brightest medal hopes.

The 20-year-old from Walsall, who went on to become professor of sport science at Brunel University, had set a new world record in the 200m and was equally fancied in the 100m dash.

But entering the Olympic arena for the 100m final was an overwhelming experience, Radford recalls. "It was incredibly hot - Rome was having a heatwave - and 100,000 people were shouting. It was a very strange experience.

"At the time, no one had ever run at two games, so I was aware this was the only chance I'd have to win an Olympic medal.

"I developed a focus where I blocked out the rest of the world and went into my shell. In fact, I didn't want to look at the others because I was afraid they would look too good."

But Radford's focus was broken by the German sprinter Armin Hary, known as "the thief of starts" for his quick getaways.

Hary claimed that his reaction times were a "built-in talent", but other competitors believed his lightning-fast starts were down to gamesmanship.

"While we were on our fingertips, he came in last and late into the blocks, so the starter fired his gun almost immediately," says Radford.

"As the gun went off, Hary was away. He caused a false start, which was followed by another. We had to wait 20 minutes in total.

"I was thinking about what Hary had done and my concentration had cracked. When the race started, I found myself in last place. I managed to chase down three runners, but couldn't reach the last two."

Radford claimed a bronze medal in the race - Hary took the gold - and Radford later picked up a bronze in the 4x100m relay. He also competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where his performance was hampered by injury. But his 100m British record stood for 19 years before it was beaten by Alan Wells.

"It felt more like a gold medal lost - it took me years to get over it," admits Radford, who returned to the Olympics in 1996 as chairman of UK Athletics.

He believes his experiences with athletics helped prepare him for a life in academia.

"You develop a tremendous ability to plan ahead and work hard for rewards which come much later," he suggests.

"I think that is why many high-level athletes will achieve in other areas of life. Athletics is not just about relying on your natural ability but having perseverance and a single-mindedness that helps in the rest of your life.

"Even in my retirement I've won a national gardens championship by going that extra mile," Radford says.

The home nation effect

Team GB will win gold medals and 56 medals in total at London 2012, academics have predicted.

Using an economic forecasting model, Sheffield Hallam University's Sport Industry Research Centre claims that British athletes will take home medals in 15 sports, possibly finishing as high as third in the overall medal table.

This would be a massive improvement on the UK's performance at the 1996 games in Atlanta, when just one gold medal was won, courtesy of rowers Sir Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent.

At the Beijing Olympics, Team GB scooped 19 gold medals thanks to the UK's strategic approach to elite sport adopted in the late 1990s.

Scientists at Sheffield Hallam based their predictions on a theory that elite performance is now more a matter of public investment rather than population size or GDP.

Other factors include the "home nation effect", which has led to improved performance by host nations in the past.

Four years ago, the Sheffield Hallam team predicted China would win 46 gold medals at Beijing - the closest prediction to the actual total of 51.

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