Get on the 2012 starting blocks

March 16, 2007

Even if your university is unlikely to produce a potential medal-winning athlete, there are plenty of opportunities for institutions and their students to get involved in the London Olympics, says Harriet Swain

On your marks... get set... go - although to be certain of winning in certain fields in the 2012 Olympics you should probably have gone already.

The deadline for applying to be a training camp for Olympic athletes in the run-up to the Games passed at the end of February, and your chances of producing medal-winning students in five years time are not good if you've always been better known for academic tracts than athletic tracks. But there are plenty of other ways higher-education institutions can benefit from the London Olympics - and they don't need to be anywhere near London to do it.

"Locog (the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) is very keen to regard this as a national opportunity so they want universities participating wherever they are," says Marc Stephens, former director of the London Development Agency responsible for the Olympic Games and now director of Open Cities.

First, there's your accommodation. Not only will athletes from around the world need somewhere to stay but so will their friends and families, who may want to see other parts of the UK while waiting for their beloved's event. Then there's your expertise. This could be related to sports science or tourism, or it may be in translation services or any number of subjects that could be useful to media outlets looking for different angles on the Olympic story.

Then there are your students. Stephens says they can help with the administration of the Games, as volunteers and in paid roles. Higher education institutions were particularly successful at the Atlanta Games in arranging Olympic-related work experience for students. The Sydney Games demonstrated the value of volunteers, with more than 6,000 students taking on roles directly related to their courses and many receiving course credit in areas from technology to media studies, languages, human resource management and sport administration. One Australian university ran masters programmes in sports administration for postgraduate students from Greece - where the next Olympics were to be held - which involved practical work for the Sydney Olympic organising committee.

Jane Glanville, chief executive of London Higher, says universities should be thinking about their approach to corporate social responsibility for staff and students - one of the things Locog has said it wants to encourage. Institutions may also be able to offer training and accredited courses for volunteers.

A study on the contribution of the higher education sector to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, produced by Richard Cashman and Kristine Toohey, from the University of Technology, Sydney, recommends that higher education institutions wanting to become involved in Olympics should develop clear guidelines for student involvement to maximise the benefits and avoid exploitation, and should provide training. It also recommends undertaking research that explores the benefits as well as costs of such student involvement, and urges institutions to support staff who have the opportunity to work on organising the Games.

Nick Brooking, director of sport at Hertfordshire University, says collaboration is vital. The "Hertfordshire Ready for Winners" partnership includes representatives from the county council, local chamber of commerce, police, health authority, county sports partnership and private sector business as well as the university. All have their own agendas, he says, but also the common one of raising the profile of their area.

But you must really want your institution to get involved. And your vice-chancellor must want it too. "University leaders can do much more to recognise, promote and exploit the contribution that their institutions make to the Olympics and need to make more of the role sport can do in strengthening what they do," Stephens says.

Cashman and Toohey's paper recommends that higher education institutions develop a clear statement of their aims and objectives regarding Olympic involvement and appoint a co-ordinating officer, or set up a centre to maximise coordination. It also stresses the importance of liaison between institutions to avoid duplicating effort. It suggests that higher education institutions should evaluate the kind of involvement they achieve, and should undertake research on Olympic-related topics.

Glanville says that higher and further education institutions should be thinking of ways to use the Games to boost initiatives and strategies they already have. For example, they could help widening-participation programmes by providing inspiration for potential students.

Stephens says the most important thing for universities to remember is to communicate what they are doing in relation to the Games. "They contribute more than half the athletes and a lot of the expertise, but who knows they are doing all that?" he asks. "There is much more they can do in the area of promotion of the university business."

He says they need to be thinking about promotion already to help make the case for investment in sport as a contribution for Olympic success.

Stephens also argues that universities need to use the forthcoming Olympics as a springboard to encourage private investment into sport in universities.

Both Glanville and Stephens warn against getting too hung up on financial rewards. "There is a tendency to see the Games as a potential bonanza in every area," Stephens says. "Be quite careful about where it is you think your institution can benefit from the games and focus on that. There is a danger of diverting too many resources to things that aren't going to happen."

Further information London Higher:

London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games:

The Contribution of the Higher Education Sector to The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games , by Richard Cashman and Kristine Toohey, Centre for Olympic Studies, University of New South Wales, April 2002.

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