Atlanta, Georgia on their minds

May 10, 1996

Some 10 per cent of the UK's Olympic contenders are expected to come from higher education. Lucy Hodges discovers how they manage to combine their studies with a gruelling exercise schedule.

It is only two and a half months before the 1996 Olympic Games open in the steamy heat of Atlanta, Georgia, and athletic hopefuls are chewing their fingernails in anticipation. Will they perform well enough at the trials to enable them to qualify? Will their injuries have healed in time?

For student athletes there are special problems in combining intense physical training with studying for a degree, particularly if they are in their final year. How do they do it?

"With difficulty," says John Wyatt, an Oxford undergraduate in his final year of a chemistry degree and a likely candidate for the British hockey team in Atlanta.

A student at Corpus Christi, Wyatt is fortunate in studying for a four-year degree. He took his examinations last year and is writing a thesis this year, which means he is not under pressure from finals and is able to fit his two-hour daily fitness schedule (jogging and gym) around his research. Every Thursday he spends three hours hockey training and plays hockey at weekends.

Juggling academic life and sport requires organisation and the cooperation of tutors. "When I am travelling I miss out on time when I could be doing my academic work," he says. "So I have to work harder when I am in Oxford and I have had to make sacrifices."

Some of the best athletes are among the highest academic achievers. Distance runner Paula Radcliffe, who this term takes her finals in European studies at Loughborough University, is hoping to run the 5,000 metres in Atlanta and is working hard to combine academic and sporting excellence. She got a first in her second-year exams; today she thinks she is borderline first/upper second. "She's outstandingly good at organising her time and commitments," according to George Gandy, a senior lecturer at Loughborough and a British Olympic team coach. "She wants to be first at everything."

Today, however, Paula Radcliffe is nursing an injury. There is a real question as to whether she will be able to run in the Olympics. "It matters very much," she says. "It's something that has been a dream really from when I was very small."

The biggest difficulty for student athletes is managing their time, say the coaches. Faced with the demands of physical training at the highest level in addition to academic coursework and a social life, many find they cannot cope.

Students I spoke to said their social lives came a poor third to their education and sport. One former Loughborough student who was at the university for one term - high jumper Steve Smith, who is tipped to do well in Atlanta - found the social life so distracting and the demands on his time so onerous that he left. By the time he reached Loughborough, Smith was anyway already something of an athletics star. That meant he was in demand by sponsors and able to earn reasonable money, so it made sense for him to set up as an independent agent.

The young people preparing for Atlanta have been putting themselves through punishing training schedules in the run-up to trials, which, in some cases, have still not taken place. They must sleep and eat properly (British students are thought to be too poor to indulge in muscle-enhancing drugs) - in effect, devote themselves to ensuring their bodies are in tip-top condition.

All athletes are told to eat large amounts of carbohydrates, pasta, rice, bread and potatoes, and not too much fat. John Wyatt cooks for himself in shared accommodation in Oxford and is able to stoke up on pasta and rice. His colleagues do the same.

Physical excellence is not sufficient, however. The mind has to be working in concert with the body so that the individual performs at his or her peak on the day. That does not always happen. Stephen Mellor, 23, who participated in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 where he came sixth in the relay, took a year out of his studies for the sake of the Atlanta Olympics this year. He hoped that would enable him to concentrate more on his training as a swimmer and give him a better chance at an Olympic medal. So, after gaining a Higher National Diploma in business and finance at Crewe and Alsager college of higher education, he decided to train with other swimmers at the Birmingham city club rather than converting his HND into a degree.

But his good intentions came to nothing. Although he won a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in 1994, had been ranked among the top four swimmers in Britain for the past two years and came third in the national championships in December last year, he failed to qualify for Atlanta in the March trials.

"It was a terrible blow," he says. "I can't put it down to any one thing."

He wonders now whether he should have continued with his degree studies on the grounds that education provides a structure around which to train. As a student at Crewe and Alsager College, Mellor had no difficulty fitting his swimming around his lectures. He trained four hours a day and the only thing that interrupted that routine was the travelling entailed in national and international competitions. Mellor is not giving up, however. He is continuing to swim and plans to return to higher education to get his degree next year.

Another swimmer who took a year off from his studies to have a better shot at the Atlanta Olympics was Simon Handley, a medical student at Bristol University. Since last summer he has been based in Sheffield where he has been able to benefit from good coaching and excellent facilities. Like Mellor, he also failed to qualify.

Why are these students prepared to put themselves through such rollercoaster experiences? A successful hockey player, John Wyatt has an explanation.

"You have to be very ambitious and you have to hate losing," he says. "I hate losing with a passion. It is not something I have ever got used to or ever will get used to. If you did, you wouldn't win."

One of the problems faced by British competitors, compared with their American counterparts, is the lack of first-class coaching and facilities on campus. Mellor and Handley postponed their studies for a year to get closer to both. British athletes look longingly across the Atlantic at the millions of dollars poured into American university sport where, in some cases, students are recruited to colleges solely for their sporting prowess.They are given sporting scholarships and encouraged to play sport to the detriment of their studies, which means they may fail to graduate or even, in one apocryphal case, leave college unable to read or write.

That is most unlikely to happen in Britain, says Jim Ellis, senior administrator of the British Universities Sports Association. "We would never stress that sport is other than secondary to why athletes are at university."

Nevertheless there have been moves to boost British university sport by offering scholarships to good athletes. Loughborough University now offers 12 scholarships a year worth Pounds 1,000 apiece to maintain its position as the premier sports campus. Stirling, Swansea, Bath, Bristol and Birmingham award scholarships too, and the committee headed by Sir Roger Bannister is expected to give an extra prod to sports scholarships.

Funding is a difficult issue for all British athletes. Student athletes can at least rely on grants and loans to keep them in board and lodging. Their finances could be improved if university sport enjoyed a higher profile, but most sport takes place independently of institutions of higher education in Britain.

George Gandy believes the most important factor in nurturing sporting talent is top-quality coaches. His university, for example, has Alan Buzza, former England B rugby player, Mary Nevill, who was captain of the British hockey team at the 1992 Olympics, and Nick Dakin, former international hurdler, among others, passing on their wisdom to students. Because it is an academy for sportsmen and women Loughborough has special facilities for elite performers, physiotherapy, massage and an environmental chamber in which the temperature and humidity level can be raised to simulate the 90 degree heat and 90 per cent humidity of a July afternoon in Atlanta.

Some are already training in the heat. Last week the hockey players, Guy Fordham of Southampton University and John Wyatt of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, flew to Malaysia to practise in the high temperatures there.

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