Britain's medal count at the Atlanta Olympics was low, and it may not be much better at Sydney - but just wait for Athens in 2004. By then, we should see the benefits of work by universities and the UK Sports Institute to 'raise the nation's game'. Jennifer Currie reports
Britain's universities are in the vanguard of an attempt to resurrect the nation's reputation as a contender in the sports arena. Although little has been heard of the government's promise to shape up our slightly sagging sporting profile since the Conservatives first promised to "raise the nation's game" back in 1995, it now looks as if the United Kingdom Sports Institute is at last up and running.
Aimed at providing world-class athletes with the support and services they need to compete and win at elite level events, the UKSI has grown into a network of regional centres, many of which are based at or are associated with university sport science departments.
Plans to site a single, central Sports Institute in Sheffield, similar to Australia's highly successful sports academy, were quickly scrapped after it was noted that only a small number of athletes would be able to use the services available there.
"The original plans were changed to match the main point of the institute, which is to provide all of our athletes with unlimited access to world-class facilities at convenient sites, whether they are students or not," says Rod Thorpe, director of Loughborough University's sports development centre, which hosts the East Midlands Sports Institute.
"Universities have been producing world-champion athletes for a long time. Though we try to support them in both education and training, it has been difficult with little external funding.
"I used to coach as well as lecture, but that kind of split role is no longer good enough in modern sport. We have to have dedicated coaches and sports scientists. But if we are to be genuinely world-class, we cannot merely copy the rest of the world. The research and development work on aspects of human performance and the technology of equipment is essential. It follows that a close relationship between the institutes of sport and the expertise in universities is absolutely vital and I am sure will increase, with an even greater focus," he adds.
The developments fostered by the UKSI have come too late for this year's Olympic Games, but it is hoped that Britain's athletes will start to notice the benefits by 2004, when the Olympic Games will take place in Athens. But will the institute really raise the UK's medal tally next time around?
Jackie McKinlay, spokesperson for the UKSI, certainly thinks so. "For the first time, our sportsmen and women will have priority access to world-class sports facilities, instead of having to get up at 5am to use the local pool or running track before it gets too busy.
"Universities are a key part of our scheme because they have the sports expertise and experience as well as the facilities, and this will allow us to focus on all of the athlete's needs."
Four of the ten English centres are housed in universities, including Bath and Manchester. The Scottish Institute of Sport will soon move from Edinburgh to Stirling University, and there are plans to create six other specialist centres around the country. At the University of Swansea, work will soon begin on a national swimming pool.
Although each centre will operate independently from its host, the universities will have a considerable input into their day-to-day operation - financially as well as academically.
But with more than Pounds 150 million of National Lottery funding set aside to build new facilities and improve existing ones, it is clear that universities will benefit from their investments. Bath University's facilities have already been treated to a Pounds 22 million facelift, including a 200m indoor athletic track, a 12-court multi-purpose sports hall and a simulated bobsleigh start. Loughborough University has gained a hockey pitch and a sports science and medicine conditioning facility.
Malcolm Brown, director of sport and recreation at the University of Ulster and UK athletics endurance coach, agrees that the UKSI presents universities with an exciting challenge.
"The good news for Ulster is that we are getting our own running track, but the UKSI is a unique opportunity for all universities. Provision and services are extremely varied across the UK, and in Northern Ireland especially there is a real deficit of high-performance facilities. Universities don't normally get capital to invest in their sporting facilities, so it is a rare opportunity for us to develop," he says.
The benefits will extend to athletes outside the world-class elite, including undergraduates, but Sport England's regulations state that university teams may use the training facilities only if the high-priority users' needs have already been met.
But, as Mr Brown points out, more and more students find that they have to combine their studies with high-profile sport commitments. "A significant proportion of the British (Olympic) team is in full or part-time education, so it is clearly a high priority. As a result, more universities are finding that they have a responsibility to provide bespoke career options."
The Athlete Career and Education programme - or ACE UK - has already helped more than 250 athletes to identify their educational and career goals. A straw poll of vice-chancellors earlier this year revealed that many universities are interested in providing flexible, sympathetic degree structures that account for demanding training and touring schedules.
Susan Elms, ACE UK coordinator at the Scottish Institute of Sport and a former lecturer, hopes that the programme will make a huge difference to athletes. "Universities are starting to accept that there are different ways to study and that arrangements can be flexible - whether it is just faxing an exam paper to a student on tour abroad or rescheduling their meal times to fit in with training patterns.
"We hope that the time will come when the emphasis will be on both sporting and academic excellence, so students won't have to settle for a mediocre degree or miss a once in a lifetime opportunity - they can have the lot."